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Harriett's Bookshop In Fishtown Thriving During Pandemic Due To Unique Mission

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- People initially weren't sure it would survive, but a Black-owned bookstore in Fishtown with a unique mission is thriving during this pandemic. Harriett's Bookshop has become known for selling thought-provoking books, but also for giving them away.

First-time business owner Jeannine Cook gravitates to the unconventional.

She envisioned her bookstore, named after famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, as a place to feature and uplift the work of women authors, artists and activists. People close to her thought it was crazy that as a Black woman, she would open up shop in Fishtown, a neighborhood with a long history of having very few non-white residents.

"Everyone told me this was a silly idea, it didn't make sense," she said. "But then sometimes you feel something in your gut, something you feel called to do."

Harriett's opened on Feb. 1, and just six weeks later, was forced to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Cook has proven to be an agile problem-solver, unexpectedly taking her shop online and out on the sidewalk to safely sell books and wares.

After just seven months in business, she's expertly navigated numerous crises -- an invisible virus, the volatile weather and even a group of men armed with baseball bats clashing with other neighbors just steps from her front door.

"You saw the marching in Fishtown on this very block, the people with the bats and the racial slurs," she said. "That happened right here in front of Harriett's."

Despite the many roadblocks, Harriett's is thriving in a time where people are seeking a greater level of understanding of the deep-seated systemic racism affecting African-Americans.

"I first heard about Harriett's back in June when all of the protests were happening in Philly and across the U.S.and I just saw coming here as not only a great way to not only continue to educate myself about racial issues but also to support local businesses and Black-owned businesses," said Sarah Maver, a Fishtown resident.

The bookshop has evolved to become far more than just a business. Thanks to donors and grants, Cook's team has given out hundreds of free books in Philadelphia and in places like Minneapolis, Minnesota and Louisville, Kentucky, where the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers spurred massive protests and widespread calls for change.

As a former educator, Cook said she just can't seem to stop teaching, so she's embracing it.

"Every time I think I've left the classroom. I end up right back in the classroom," Cook said. "That could look like a bookstore, that could look like being out on the street giving out books, that could look like having one-on-one conversations with customers."

Harriett's Bookshop is located at 258 E. Girard Ave and holds sidewalk sales Thursday through Sunday from 12 p.m.- 6 p.m.

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