With the opening of Harriett’s Bookshop and Ida’s Bookshop, Jeannine A. Cook elevated her love of stories into a celebration of women authors, artists and activists in which neighbors from near and far can take part.
As a young girl, Jeannine Cook embraced storytelling the way some children cling to teddy bears or dolls. Her mother’s declining vision and her father’s terminal illness drove Cook and her two siblings to seek refuge in the world of make-believe.
“My sisters and I would make up stories all the time,” Cook says, recalling narratives they would concoct, find in books or act out for their neighbors in Hampton, Virginia. “It was just our way.”
Storytelling has remained a constant throughout Cook’s life. As an undergraduate at the University of the Arts, Cook launched Positive Minds, a club that gave children the skills and wherewithal to tell their own tales. The club became a launchpad for teaching stints at Belmont Charter School and YesPhilly, an accelerated high school for students who previously had dropped out or been incarcerated.
“What do we do with young people who have been told that they don’t belong,” Cook asks. “Inviting them to share their stories and learn other people’s stories is how you re-engage and remind somebody that they do have a place in society.”
As a consultant for the American Friends Service Committee, Cook traveled to Africa and the United Kingdom to help develop curricula that use narrative and poetry to explore racism, colonialism and imperialism through a global lens.
The consulting work continued in 2019, when Cook enrolled in Drexel’s MFA program. At the time, Cook envisioned opening a cozy little bookshop as a quiet space for her writing and consulting. Oops.
Harriett’s is named for abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Ida’s honors Ida B. Wells, the journalist and women’s suffragist who led anti-lynching effortsin the 1890s.
“To still come out wanting to write and tell your story and believing that your story deserves to be told…that’s just the people that I come from.”
The shops and their online counterpart offer a trove of literature written by women authors, although Cook made an exception when Philadelphia native Will Smith launched the promotional tour for his eponymous memoir, “Will,” at Harriett’s in 2021. Both stores serve as venues where authors give readings, musicians perform, and a choir sings the songs that Tubman used to convey urgent messages to slaves escaping along the Underground Railroad.
Preparing for interviews with scholarly and literary luminaries like Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni and Imani Perry leaves Cook with little time to focus on her own writing, yet she’s three-fourths of the way through her memoir.
Joining Drexel’s inaugural MFA cohort, Cook relished the encouragement she received from program director Nomi Eve as well as a trip to France where she followed — literally — the footsteps of author James Baldwin. Cook was astonished to learn during that trip about French policies that help small bookstores flourish. What, she muses, if universities and agencies in the U.S. did likewise?
As the great-great-great granddaughter of a former slave who was forced to eat from a pig trough and identified learning to write her own name as a dying wish, Cook is determined to face the world, come what may.
“To still come out wanting to write and tell your story and believing that your story deserves to be told,” she says, “that’s just the people that I come from.”
The change I’d like to see most in the world…
A concentrated effort to repair and restore the lives of those affected by the institution of slavery, much like a modern-day version of the Truth & Reconciliation Trials in South Africa. We need to set aside time and resources to establish and plan for reparation. When social atrocities as tragic as this happen, we need to learn and practice repair. I’d also like to see more seemingly disparate groups working together to solve one issue at a time. Solve! Finally, I’d like to see the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on elections actually spent on solving real issues for real people, not campaigning. Perhaps those resources are what we can use to start the process of Truth and Reconciliation.