How Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia Blends Book Sales with Activism

Jeannine Cook, a Philadelphia bookstore owner, isn’t shy about sharing her thoughts on the parallels of activism and business. In fact, her musings are award-winning.

In 2021 Cook received an Equitable Entrepreneur Award from the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. In an interview with The Plug, she recalled the moment she received the award, taking time to advocate for other Black women. 

“I was like cool, thank y’all for the award but what would really be an award for me is if we started the Black Girl Magic business corridor. Imagine the tourism that district would attract,” she said.  

Cook opened a bookstore named after Harriet Tubman to celebrate the work of Black women artists, authors and activists. Harriett’s Bookshop opened in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood last February, enjoying about a month of normalcy before the pandemic forced most businesses to shut down. 

It’s been a challenging first year for the indie bookstore, but Cook believes her boldness and willingness to fail is what has helped prepare her to endure unprecedented circumstances. 

Cook started an online store to help her remain open during the pandemic, but she said there was another tactic that also played a huge role. Remembering the success she had selling books outside during her college years, the bookstore owner moved her inventory and furniture outside and started selling books on the sidewalk. 

“This was before the restaurants were outside. We would set everything up and we could go back inside. Everything was grab and go,” Cook said. “You could literally just grab [books] and send us a Venmo or Cash App. We had a QR code in the window. We sold almost everything we had.”

Cook said she did this for about six months. But, in the early days of the pandemic, she laid on the floor of her store crying. Rather than continue to wallow, she eventually set up a portal to facilitate the Essentials for Essentials program where people could purchase books for essential workers. 

“We thought it was going to be something that took some time, but all the books were sold in an hour,” she said. “It was a really cool way to get myself out of the funk of it all.”

It may seem counterintuitive that during a time when small businesses were losing money and closing, that Cook’s focus was on giving away books. Harriett’s, which is a sole proprietorship, gives away a book to anyone who asks. During protests in Minneapolis over the killing of George Floyd, Cook traveled to the city and handed out books to organizers and activists. 

Her actions were led by her belief that activism and entrepreneurship are intertwined. “A lot of the characteristics that it takes to be an activist, are the same ones that it takes to be an entrepreneur. It takes innovation, creativity, intuitiveness, a little bit of what Octavia E Butler calls ‘positive obsession,’” she said. 

After months of being closed because of the pandemic, Cook reopened Harriett’s in the fall with a sit-in demonstration in honor of the several Black-businesses in the Philly area that had received racist and threatening emails, according to the Inquirer

A Brooklyn native who grew up in Hampton, Virginia with her family, Cook moved to Philadelphia to attend University of the Arts. It was during her college years that she first began using books to fund her community engagement. 

She’d started an organization called Positive Minds, with the hopes of bringing arts to children, but needed money to fund the project. Inspired by others who were selling products on the campus lawn, she began selling books to her peers. “We knew we could do it because other clubs were selling things that we didn’t think were anywhere as valuable as books,” she said. 

A fire and subsequent water damage at the planned location for Harriet’s Bookshop led Cook to Fishtown. When the pandemic hit, Cook was already burned out and frustrated by the challenges she’d faced trying to open Harriett’s. 

“I was like, I’m over it. I’ve been through the fire, literally, and I can’t take anything else,” she said. 

“Harriett’s Bookshop is definitely a vehicle for doing the other work that I think is important. It never was about just having a bookstore, per se. It’s always been about the intersection of celebrating women authors, women artists and women activists in as many ways as we can figure out,” she added.

Cook has noted that the city of Philadelphia and beyond can do more to uplift other women. She believes the city has a lot of potential, but also criticized the “red tape” that business owners often have to go through that might discourage entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. 

“If I could, I would really streamline the process,” she said, noting a 2019 Pew Charitable Trust study found only 2.5 percent of businesses in Philadelphia are Black-owned, despite the city’s population being 43 percent Black. Cook believes there are Black entrepreneurs who aren’t counted in this stat because they operate out of their homes, online or in other ways in order to bypass harmful barriers to entry. 

Cook knows that independent bookstores can’t compete with major retailers such as Amazon, Target and Walmart and believes these retailers should stop selling books. 

“They’re able to undercut independent bookstores price-wise, which makes it harder for customers to choose one,” she said. “At one point they were buying up everything. By the time you get to the publisher, it’s gone. We can’t even really compete.” 

When asked why she’d opt to open a bookstore knowing all of these obstacles existed, Cook laughed. “Because I’m a little bit wacky. Because Harriet [Tubman] deserves it. Because I think this bookstore is a vehicle for a lot more,” she said. Cook told herself “if this bookstore idea doesn’t work, you’ll take consulting gigs and you’ll make that your writing studio. There’s no failing in that.”

“That’s how I justified it to myself, not knowing that the bookstore would actually do pretty well. Supporting small business [and] bookstores specifically became a part of people’s activism,” she said. 

This story is part of a partnership with WURD radio covering technology, business, and innovation in Philadelphia. This vital work is possible with support from the Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund, an effort by Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF) and the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund (Knight-Lenfest Fund).

Jewel Wicker

Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based reporter who has written for publications such as Wall Street Journal Magazine, GQ, NPR and Atlanta magazine. She previously worked as a staff reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.