On a pleasant Sunday morning, Tu Rae Gordon, a 49-year-old resident of Philadelphia, has just finished breakfast with his wife, Tamara. The couple has stopped in Collingswood, NJ, to have breakfast at their favorite restaurant, Sabrina’s, and concludes the morning with a trip to Ida’s Bookshop.
“Me and my lady would walk Haddon Ave to explore the area. We came across this black bookshop and immediately entered it,” says Gordon, describing his first experience at the bookstore.
“The atmosphere is wonderful. The store lets the books sell themselves,” Gordon explains.
As they enter the cozy bookstore, he and his wife are surrounded by Black culture. The air is filled with a refreshing earthy blend of incense and oil, and several stable pieces take center stage. Books like “Black Archives: A Celebration of Black Life” by Renata Cherlise and “From Here to Equality” by William A Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen create a culturally enriching atmosphere. A large brown wood-framed mirror adorned with a collection of books adds to the decor and simultaneously allows patrons to see themselves in this new and culturally stimulating environment. Strategically placed chairs throughout the store allow customers to read before checkout, providing an interactive experience that activates the senses.
Gordon finishes his visit by purchasing “Will Smith’s Autobiography” and “The 1619 Project.” His immersive experience culminates with his books wrapped in twine and adorned with a flower.
“It was like I was buying books in a time when we [Black people] weren’t supposed to be reading,” Gordon says.
Located at 734 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, NJ, Ida’s Bookshop is a Black-owned business that opened in 2021 following the success of its sister shop, Harriet’s Bookshop, located at 258 E. Girard Ave, which opened a year prior in February 2020 in Philadelphia. Both establishments were founded by Jeanine A. Cook, born in Brooklyn, NY, and moved to Hampton, Virginia, with her family before settling in Philadelphia at 17. The stores are named after Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman, respectively.
Cook’s mother was a librarian and teacher, and her father was an electrician, preacher, and avid reader. She credits her early passion for reading to her family.
“There are a plethora of people who came before us, and in our tradition, we name those people and pay homage to them as much as we can,” Cook explains.
Cook earned two degrees from the University of the Arts: a B.A. in Communication Media Studies in 2005 and an M.A. in Design and Applied Arts in 2014. In 2022, Cook earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.
“I loved reading most of my life. I come from folks who are storytellers. My sister did a genetic test and traced our lineage to West Africa, where we come from people who were known for being griots – storytellers. This comes as a natural progression for us to do what we do,” Cook says as she reflects on her lineage as one robust with storytellers, educators, and preachers.
“The bookshop is important for a lot of reasons. It is my right and responsibility to pay homage to the people who came before me. I don’t believe in leaving that in someone else’s hands. Often when we do that, we see that they aren’t done with integrity. It becomes a place to exchange knowledge and community dialogue,” Cook affirms.
The store emphasizes youth development, women authors, artists, and activists.
Cook’s past experiences and employment have fostered her deep connection to the community and her commitment to uplifting the youth. Her master’s thesis was titled “How to Reengage Out-of-School Youth?”
Throughout her adult years, Cook added work to her resume that specialized in cultivating the youth, being employed at YES Philly, District 1199C, and the Youth Bill. “I was part of a group that helped young people who dropped out of high school to get their diplomas or GEDs. Programs considered for dropouts or as we called them ‘pushouts’ because society basically turned their backs on them,” reflects Cook on her journey.
“When you enter the shop, you’re meeting young people – that was intentional. This is their space as much as anyone else.”
Cook’s decision to involve young people extended to her son Messiah, 19, whom she also endowed with a passion for books and reading. “I’ve always loved to read since I could remember. Some of my favorite things to do growing up was meeting with my cousins and us all telling each other stories!” says Messiah delightedly.
Messiah works at both Ida’s and Harriet’s Bookshop and has a love for books that are culturally or spiritually infused.
“We make sure that each customer is granted an experience from our packaging of the books, our bookmarks to the decor,” says Messiah.
“We don’t have a lot of cultural capital in South Jersey, so all of these are unique opportunities to cultivate that. Our culture is deep and vast; there are a lot of traditions disappearing from our culture, and we don’t necessarily notice because we have been indoctrinated to even recognize our culture,” explains Cook about the cultural significance of establishments like Ida’s Bookshop.
In the theme of paying ancestral homage and maintaining that cultural presence, Ida’s Bookshop has partnered with Legacy Official, a Christian ensemble based in Philadelphia. Consisting of seven choir members, all cousins, and a band, the ensemble calls the Morning Star Holiness home on North 20th Street and Cecil B Moore Avenue. The choir began their partnership singing for Harriet’s Bookshop in Philly after being connected to Cook through a mutual party.
“Gospel music came when Black people were experiencing the worst human conditions in American history, and yet they found joy and unity in singing together. The love and joy of God. That is a testament to some of the best characteristics of Black culture,” says choir member Jonnel, 24, Philadelphia.
The choir performs for most of Harriet’s events during the year; Christmas and MLK celebrations are among their most notable performances. In addition, the choir would perform for the first time at Ida’s this year on the second Sunday of February.
“The elements of African cultures and paying homage to historical figures. So much to explore and notice – a dual experience. You’re shopping for books, but you’re also experiencing Black culture play out in front of your eyes,” recounts fellow choir member and self-described avid reader Ariana, 24, Sicklerville.
“Our ancestors were able to use these songs as a tool to empower themselves and one another. They were able to use these songs as code. I was always interested in the fact that they can be coded to have a double meaning. I am enthralled by the people we come from!” exclaims Cook.
“People have told me that Ida’s reminds them of a sanctuary. All of the walls are covered with something beautiful. The design is minimalistic, yet it’s aesthetically pleasing and visually captivating. In many ways, the shop reminds me of my classroom. How do you support as many people as possible while giving them a deeper experience?” Cook says.
When asked about the future of the bookshops, Cook remains humble and open-minded. “I couldn’t imagine being where we are now, but I’m open to all the shops unfolding in perfect order -whatever that means and whatever that looks like, I’m open to it,” she says.
As Cook’s shop grows, it has expanded to a pop-up shop called “Alice’s bookshop,” honoring author, poet, and activist Alice Walker at the Ritz Theater Company in Oakland, New Jersey. The pop-up store opens in the theater’s lobby during “The Color Purple” performances. The bookstore also intends to host a pop-up shop in France; this popup will be named after dancer, singer, and actress Josephine Baker.
Cook is determined to further her mission of educating and strengthening literacy and knowledge while serving as a Black cultural hub for residents of South Jersey and the greater surrounding area.