Last weekend, the last weekend of August, I went to Philly for some family quality time. My previous trip to visit my cousin, his wife, and their two kids was December. My how time flies! It’s been cute to witness the visible evolution of their family with every visit.
My first Philly trip, a birthday trip, it was just the two of them. Next visit they had a baby daughter. Next visit, she was a toddler, and her brother was not yet one year old. This most recent visit, she’s four, writing letters in a workbook, while her younger brother who wasn’t even crawling is now walking and running like a drunk man. Per usual, it takes a moment for the kids to get used to this stranger in their home before they warmed up to me and were using my body as a jungle gym.
Family time aside, my requests for my Philly visits are to keep me well-fed, including a cheesesteak from a new spot, and to visit an indie bookstore, preferably one that’s Black-owned. Mission accomplished! Both were checked off on Sunday, my final day.
Upon arrival on Friday, I was treated to Indonesian food, a first. I had a very black soul foodish meal: rice, collard greens, and beef in a coconut sauce. It was delicious. Saturday morning, I was pampered with a ginormous spinach, onion and cheese omelet and that evening played games at a small dinner party. I feel like my cousin would want me to mention that he made ice cream cake from scratch as well as the mixed drinks, for which he made me handwrite the menu and list ingredients.
Sunday’s cheesesteak from Angelo’s Pizzeria was breakfast before heading back out for my bookstore visit. Sadly, what I’d been craving for days was underwhelming. It was bland. I added Goya Adobo for some flavor. I know that some spots you have to specify salt and pepper. That’s preposterous and should be automatic. Cheese and onions can’t be considered the only seasoning. C’mon now!
The cheesesteak disappointment dissipated once we arrived at Harriett’s Bookshop. I should be, but am not, ashamed of how I fangirled over a bookstore thanks to Instagram–bookstagram to be exact. Also, I should be ashamed, but am not, that I had my cousin and his wife pack up their two young children to visit a bookstore, a place that even some adults find boring. The kids were entertained, and this wasn’t little Camille’s first bookstore visit with me.
When we arrived, Jeannine the founder and owner’s mother was the only person on site. She asked where we were from. My cousin and his wife replied they were from Philadelphia. I said I was visiting from New York and the store was a specific request. When I said that, the petite woman with locs became my instant BFF. We yammered away as only booklovers can fall into book talk.
Harriett’s is a black woman owned independent bookstore in Philadelphia. Its black and white interior makes you feel like you’re inside a life-size sketchbook, similar to the old school music video Take on Me by a-ha. All lines are exaggerated and look like they were drawn with a giant black permanent magic marker–the kinds schoolkids sniff to get a rush. Along one wall is a bookshelf, where all titles face out from their individual cubbyholes. Viola Davis’ Finding Me, Jennifer Lewis’ Walking In My Joy, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, various Toni Morrison novels, among others. I was surprised to see Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner which let me know they carried non-black titles. Their website says: Harriett’s Bookshop, named for historical heroine Harriett Tubman, celebrates women authors, women artists, and women activists.
Jeannine’s mother (I never asked her name) suggested titles, most of which I’d already read or weren’t at the top of my list. I also suggested some books on display or other books by authors who were displayed. I was looking for two specific books that I’d been holding off on buying so I could purchase there to support the store. You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi and Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. Fool of Death is Emezi’s latest book, but I read their debut novel Freshwater years ago. Even though it confused the hell out of me as I was reading it, I better understood it during the Well-Read Black Girl book club meeting. I’d heard Fool of Death had some spicy scenes, and I enjoyed the author’s interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Nightcrawling had received so much pre-publication buzz by some bookstagrammars I trust it piqued my interest, even though I’ve been burned in the past by pre-publication buzz. I trusted it because it’s selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in stock, but Fool was. Jeannine’s mom suggested Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, which was on my radar. She told me her daughter had a book of poetry called Conversations with Harriett. Though poetry usually confuses me the book was beautiful. Also, how could I not purchase the owner’s book in her own bookstore?
After snagging those three books, I snapped a few pics and made some boomerangs for Instagram. Opposite the bookshelf wall, there was a wall with drawn windows and a drawn framed photograph of Toni Morrison, the Maya Angelou quote “I Rise,” a leaning bookshelf, a table dedicated to Octavia Butler books. I’ve never read her work but have been meaning to. Jeannine’s mother suggested I start with Kindred, which was also sold out.
Beside the table was a full-length mirror that also looked drawn with white high-top sneakers at the base, one of which said “Reparations Over Everything.” As I continued there was a dedicated James Baldwin nook, some hanging black T-shirts, and more quotes written on the wall.
In the next small room was a children nook and a short walkway that led to a small, covered seating area outside. I felt like I was walking in a cartoon or on set for a children’s TV program. Outside, my cousin-in-law was reading to her daughter on one of the small white wrought iron chairs. There were several books stacked and facing out books surrounded by plants on the wall, tables and chairs. It’s the type of reading area I’d love to have in my phone home should I ever be a homeowner. I snagged more pics, some with and without me in them. By this time, we were running low on time. We still had to head back to the house for my suitcase before I caught a 3:30 Amtrak back to New York.
I took another lap around the store as my purchases were rung up. I was tickled that they’re wrapped in twine and a Harriett’s bookmark is tucked on top of the stack. As a special thank you to me, a real clipped red rose was added. Jeannine’s mom informed me I was close to earning a free T-shirt. Say less! I grabbed a paperback copy of Carefree Black Girl by Zeba Blay. I was still a few cents short of $100 to earn the free T-shirt but she gifted it to me anyway. I chose the one emblazoned with Harriett’s across the chest. After those two items were separately wrapped in twine, I posed with my two stacks by the checkout counter that said Harriett’s in black and white. Jeannine’s mom declined to pose with me but did act as photographer for our group photo outside underneath the awning. These photos were similar to the photos taken during my December visit to Uncle Bobbie’s bookstore, owned by Marc Lamont Hill. Then and I now, I have cute photos of just Camille and me next to the bookstore names.
I couldn’t have been happier about my visit to Harriett’s, even if the books had been free. I love supporting authors and independent businesses, especially Black women owned businesses. It was a good weekend, but an especially good Sunday.
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