March 10 was circled on Jeannine A. Cook’s calendar. The date marked the 107th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death, and Cook — the owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown — was planning a day-long commemoration of Tubman’s life.
She beefed up her inventory with copies of Kate Clifford Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero, and coordinated with community leaders. But her plans were swiftly sidelined as the coronavirus pandemic brought closures to Philly and the world.
Last week, Cook ordered more than a dozen copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley when news reached Philly of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
With a face mask secured and a large bag filled with books positioned across her shoulders, Cook (with the help of her mother, her son, and his girlfriend) headed to City Hall to offer free books to the hundreds of protesters who poured into the streets.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We can look at what’s already been done and build on that. So those are the two books I focused on, but there are so many more."
As the day progressed, Cook made several trips between her bookshop and City Hall, “to make sure [my family] had what they needed.” Although she initiated the handout efforts of her small group, she said that her 16-year-old son Messiah and his girlfriend, Brianna were the inspiration for the idea.
Cook wanted to show her son a more holistic approach to protesting.
“If you’re going to be out there resisting” and on the front lines of the movement, she said, “Then we also need to be on the [community]-building side of things. That’s what I’ve been trying to do to support the young people that are in my life.”
Since the start of the area protests, Cook said the group has handed out at least 100 books, and protesters have shown “much gratitude.” She said she’s flying through books to hand out. “I’m trying to figure out what else we can get because the books went so fast.”
However, donations are coming in just as fast. Cook said she’s received a slew of donations from the shop’s Venmo account (@harriettsbookshop), and she’s using the money to “get more books on the street.” Cook said she wants to do everything she can to help young people during this time of civil unrest. To her, “this is their effort.”
Cook and her team have also been passing out books outside the shop on Girard Avenue and in other places around the city — and nation. Cook went on a turnaround trip to Minneapolis last week to hand out books. “It’s been so organic,” she said. “We go wherever we know there’s a march or wherever we know there’s action happening."
On Monday night, as many as 100 men armed with baseball bats and hammers roamed Fishtown for hours, saying they were protecting police and local businesses from protesters, an incident city officials described as vigilantism.
“My building is not boarded up,” she said. “I did not believe that people would do that to us, and they didn’t,” but just in case, Cook said she has slept in her shop at least three nights to deter any possible property damage or looting.
Harriett’s Bookshop opened in February as a space “for folks to come together, discuss ideas, and debate in a healthy way,” she said. When the shop isn’t closed because of coronavirus limitations, she hosts writers’ groups, small concerts, and group discussions on community-building. But right now, passing out books to protesters has been her medium of activism.
“There are a million different ways that we can approach social ills,” Cook said. “Everyone is out there holding up signs, and there’s no problem with that. We’re going to hold up books.”