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Bookstore named after Harriet Tubman celebrates women authors, artists and activists

Owner Jeannine A. Cook has seen her Philadelphia bookstore through a fire and the coronavirus pandemic. But her mission remains the same.

Before Jeannine A. Cook was the owner and curator of Harriett's Bookshop, she was a voracious reader. Cook was the little girl who read the Bible with her sister by candlelight, the student who stealthily flipped through banned classics, such as "The Color Purple," and most importantly, the daughter of a former librarian.

"Growing up in my household, one thing that I think made us really appreciative of books and the ability to read is that my mom started to go blind when we were little, then went completely blind when we were about 10," Cook told TODAY by phone. "My mom was in school and as she was losing her eyesight, she slowly had us start to read to her and write for her."

Virginia native Jeannine A. Cook, 37, is the owner and curator of Harriett's Bookshop in Philadelphia.Holden Blanco / HKB Photography

Born in the Brooklyn borough of New York City and raised in Hampton, Virginia, Cook attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she had her own bookstand and sold novels at the corner of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. Now, over 10 years later, 37-year-old Cook is the owner and curator of Harriett's Bookshop.

Opened on Feb. 1, 2020, the store is based in Philly's Fishtown neighborhood and named for Black revolutionary and historical heroine Harriet Tubman. As the canon of great American literature is often whitewashed and male-dominated, Harriett's Bookshop's mission is to celebrate women authors, women artists and women activists.

Cook said, "Even when I was younger, we're reading "Beowulf" (in class but) I'm reading Alice Walker. I used to sneak and read Alice Walker because I was told I was too young and the content was raw for my age, but I was always on the prowl for stories that I felt resonated with me and felt like my stories."

The opening of Harriett's was challenging with the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, just one month later. However, Cook's first attempt at a shop went up in flames. The original store on 7th Street and Girard Avenue burned down in an accident. Cook remembers receiving a call from her former business partner in complete shock.

Harriett's Bookshop opened Feb. 1, 2020, on East Girard Avenue in Philadelphia.Tyger Williams

"It was just so unbelievable because of the sheer amount of time, energy and money I had just put in. I also had no real resolve to get my resources back, so it was really painful and just kind of surreal," the owner said. "When stuff like that happens, you're kind of asking yourself, or at least I'm asking myself, 'What is this trying to tell me? What is the lesson in this?'"

There's this whole lie that Black people don't read, that Black women didn't do everything that we've done.

She had been told countless times that her dream wouldn't come to fruition. Using her writing, marketing and digital engagement skills, she worked several freelance gigs to support her family and to pursue her dreams and purpose.

Now as the sole owner and curator of Harriett's, Cook attributes her resilience to the voice of Harriet Tubman in her conscience.

Harriet Tubman, shown here in a photograph dating from 1860-1875, was born Araminta Ross and never learned how to read or write, therefore the spelling of her name is unclear, according to Cook. The abolitionist renamed herself after her mother, Harriet Greene Ross, and her first husband, John Tubman. The shop uses two T's in its name as an ode to Tubman's mother and the other unnamed women freedom fighters who came before her.Library of Congress via AP

"There's this whole lie that Black people don't read, that Black women didn't do everything that we've done. (Harriet Tubman) was somebody, even as a little girl, that I needed to see and know that these stories had real-life humans, real-life Black women, just like me, who were the reason that certain institutions crumbled. If you want to see Black women celebrated, then just go celebrate them and everybody else can get on board if they want," Cook said.

Having received a citation from her congresswoman for Women's History Month, "honoring her as one of the women of the 175th dedicated to (the) community," Cook has adopted Tubman's spirit of activism through the work of her bookshop. In the spring of 2020, the store launched an initiative called Essentials for Essentials, in which community members would buy books for hospital workers in the Philadelphia area.

Under an Ankara print jacket, Cook wears a shirt featuring names of Black women authors, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.Brianna Bolden

Notably, Harriett's Bookshop has been a bastion for social justice following the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. When Cook's paid interns, also known as youth conductors at the bookshop, were planning to protest, they assembled signs that said, "I CAN'T BREATHE." Those were the last words of Eric Garner, another Black man killed by police, which felt particularly triggering to Cook.

Then, she came up with another idea.

"The work is just to practice what you preach," Cook said. "What would be something that you could do that represents what we stand for? I was like, I have a box of books."

And so at different protests, the Harriett's Bookshop team gave books — such as Tubman's "Bound for the Promised Land" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" — to those on the streets. Books were gone in seconds and quickly, their Instagram following jumped during the summertime boom for Black businesses from 3,000 to more than 30,000 followers in a weekend.

But with that increased visibility, Harriett's Bookshop became a target. Following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black male from Philadelphia who struggled with mental illness, protests occurred throughout the city. Cook said windows were broken at neighboring stores; throughout the summer, her store even received death threats via email. However, Cook remains committed to the work and invested in the mission of Harriett's.

Thanks to a shoe line partnership with Vans, Cook will be able to continue to fund the youth conductor program, training young Harriet Tubmans who are learning about activism, entrepreneurship and literature. On the horizon, Cook hopes to open up a second storefront this Mother's Day called Ida's Bookshop in Collingswood, New Jersey, named for investigative journalist and Black activist Ida B. Wells.

"Because though we supposedly live in the land of the free, as it's stated, that is complete irony," Cook said. "I would love it if we were creating intentional spaces to discuss what the concept of freedom looks like and to discuss how we how we're going to put that into action."