Recounted Whisperings w/ Jeannine A. Cook

“A long time ago, I used to sell books outside on the corner, Broad and Cecil B Moore. I used to have a stand. I met this guy, who I think was a professor at Temple. He was so instrumental in my life. He told me, ‘get a notebook and write the future… if you get still enough, you gonna see the future. Write it down, whatever you see while you’re there.’ I promise you, so much of what he had me write is in mode now.”

 - Jeannine A. Cook

Entering into Harriett’s Bookshop, one experiences the energetic shift that accompanies leaving the mundane world and crossing over into something sacred. Full of the smell of Satya incense and guarded by the colorful presence of ancestors, the shop sits in a delicate balance between living and ancestral, between hard and soft, between community bookshop and cherished writing studio. The Sable team had the honor of sitting down with owner Jeannine A. Cook to explore the origins of the sensible and yet spiritual space. 
Where did the dream to open Harrietts originate? What called you to manifest it at this time, and in this place?
“I’m actually not sure exactly where it originated… some things feel like they’ve been sitting with me for a long time. I traveled in and out of how to do it... and how to do it correctly. A few years ago I had another space… and after I did all the renovations, the space caught on fire. It was very much like… ‘is this a sign?’ ‘is this a sign to go harder, or is this a sign to retreat?” It’s been a dream in the works for a while. Harrietts is a bookshop, but it’s also my writing studio. This is where I write. This is where I create. This is what I needed my writing studio to be, and it just so happens that other people enjoy the experience as well. 
Philly is my home… I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same year… that I’m talking to you about sisterhood, the city decides to name itself “The City of Sisterly Love” for the first time…. I think there is something here that makes all of that possible, and I’m leaning into it.” 
What are your hopes and dreams for the shop? What do you feel is the power of creating a Black woman-centered space, and literary space at that? 
“One of my first hopes is that we’ll get our children’s reading area open, because my thought and goal has always been for it to be about family and about community. Eventually, I’m gonna redo the basement and that’ll be our Underground. It would be a place where folks can meet privately, which I think is so important. We underestimate the power of having a private space and privacy in this day and time. One of my friends was like ‘in the sixties, when they were training children to participate in organizing activities, they’d train them in the back of stores and these inconspicuous places, because they wanted them to be prepared. I feel like that’s another way that I’m really excited to use that underground space. 
I think it’s powerful for us to do what we feel is calling us. There’s a really cliche phrase ‘what you seek is also seeking you.’ Though it is cliche, it is also true. I think that whatever it is that’s screaming out from the inside of us needs to be responded to, because it’s typically a message that other people are needing. It’s not just sitting in your spirit for no reason. It’s coming to you because you are probably the person who will do it, and do it well. It is of the utmost responsibility for us to respond to that internal voice. 
I was raised in the Pentecostal church, and one of the things they said a lot was ‘many are called but few are chosen.’ That sticks with me, because it’s like, ‘what is the difference between being called and being chosen?’ A calling is something that’s happening externally, but choosing is something that’s happening internally. That’s why many are called, but so many of us don’t choose ourselves. Choose yourself for once, and see what happens. Bet on you.”

How do you feel your background prepared you for the journey and impacted your decision of becoming a business owner? How do you feel it hindered or discouraged you? What keeps you going in the face of those obstacles? 

“My mother and father were both in ministry, and I knew I ain’t wanna have nothing to do with that. But it’s just like, sometimes you don’t know. Especially if you’re in your teenage years and it’s like ‘no Jean, you are gonna be with people and you’re gonna be with people in a lot of different ways. Maybe it won’t look like it did traditionally, but it’s still work around bringing people together. It’s still work around support and love. You might not be able to draw the direct correlation, but I definitely see it as work that’s deeply spiritual if for no one else, me. Just this week two school groups came in here... We had a great conversation about love. Whatever you call it, that is an extension of that. What my mom would call ‘broughtupsy.’ That’s a trini term, ‘broughtupsy,’ how you was brought up. 

Switching gears to my mother, who is probably one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. She travels the world with a cane, because of her vision. She went completely blind when I was a little girl… they were able to restore her vision about 10 percent. My mom goes to the track. My mom travels by herself, and she’s still in her work. She listens to audiobooks all the time. She’s like “Jeannine, you don’t know how hard it is to find what I’m looking for because I can’t see, but I’ma keep finding it. She’s just that kind of person. 

You know, I’m telling her about Octavia Butler and Parable of the Sower and she’s like ‘well let me tell you the biblical reference.’ She gives me that kind of love where she was just like, ‘think about what kind of soil you are. It’s all about these different types of soil. Are you rocky soil, where things aren’t gonna grow? Are you weed filled soil, where things are gonna come in and snatch all your nutrients? If you don’t know what kind of soil you are, you’re not gonna understand why you’re not reaping the results you’ve been looking for.’  That small interaction is just an example of me and her relationship. She’s just like, this other kind of womanly.” 

How would you define your personal connection with Harriet? I know you recently published, “Conversations with Harriett” how and why has that relationship been so paramount, and essential, for you? 

“For years I’ve said I have these conversations with Harriet, and that Harriet whispers in my left ear. The reason that I’m now so super clear about it is that I’ve met other women by opening Harriett’s, I even met a little boy… So many people have come in here and told me their Harriett stories. She really doesn’t stop. I think that she whispers, and when I listen, she has a lot to offer me. 

She begins to read an excerpt from Conversations with Harriett: ‘the path with no beginning is worth beginning… it’s me they follow.’ For me, this was talking to me. She was talking to me, and I’m just writing it down. The whole idea about the ‘path with no beginning’ like leaving, escaping, you don’t know where to go. This is my same exact sentiment. I’ve never had a bookstore before, I’ve never had a brick and mortar anything. But the path with no beginning is worth beginning. It’s just so many ways in which she has given me lots of wisdom. It’s more than I even understand in some ways. This is the least that I can do, create some monument to her in some way. I’m not up to waiting for nobody, especially the state, to handle no business for me. I don’t need the state to create monuments for my people. I got that. 

Even just thinking about… energy. What does Harriet’s energy do for Philadelphia? This is where her first stop for freedom was. It’s just that responsibility again. “It’s me they follow.” And so, I need to be up to something so that my children, my  great grandchildren, your children, your great grandchildren have something to follow.”

Jeannine pictured outside of Harrietts, decked out in her Sable threads. 

Outside of Harriet, who or what has been your biggest inspiration? What piece of writing has been the most impactful to you? What work is inspiring you in this current moment? 

“Outside of Harriet, Toni. Toni is just with me, and I think again, somebody who reminds me of my responsibility, my responsibility now to my craft. You know, yes, I have a bookstore, but I’m a writer. I have to navigate those two worlds. I don’t want to lose myself as a writer while building the bookshop, and I don’t want the bookshop to suffer while I’m writing. It’s always looking for the middle ground in terms of those two things. Toni as a writer, as a craftsperson, definitely keeps me inspired and focused. I’m responsible for both, and the people on one side or the other don’t understand it. That’s the Black woman. Harriet was going back and forth, so I can’t complain about getting to sit in a bookshop. What if the baby cried? I think about that all the time. When children would leave plantations, they never had shoes. Come on, what you complaining about? Your dang on bookshop?”

What advice would you give to girls, particularly young Black girls, seeking to follow in your footsteps or walk a similar path as you? What do you believe is the most important value to pass-on? 

“I think I’m gonna share what someone said to me. You know, you have so much value and you’re in a place that is going to try to trick you into believing that you’re not what you are. Be aware of that trickster, but never bend a knee to it. It’s a liar. There’s gonna be an onslaught of attacks on who you are as a human being… every time just remember that’s the trick. Lauryn Hill, ‘it seeks to suck your blood’. But nah. Nah shawty. And that’s what I needed to hear when I was little. They goin try, but do not bend a knee to it. Do not succumb. The sooner you get to that understanding, the sooner you’ll know peace.”


Stay updated with Jeannine and Harrietts Bookshop by following the shop’s Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and visiting the website.


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