How residents in a New Jersey community rallied to save a Black woman’s bookshop from closure in Black History Month

BY Nii Ntreh March 20, 2024 1:39 PM EDT
Jeannine Cook
Jeannine Cook, the founder of Ida’s Bookshop (Collingswood, NJ.) and Harriet’s Bookshop (Philadelphia). Photo Credit: Jeannine Cook

The bond among African-Americans remains a resilient force, fortifying unity amidst the pervasive systemic racial biases entrenched in the United States. This bond has been pivotal to Black people’s perseverance and advancement throughout history. Despite facing reprehensible racial injustices, Black people across various states and cities have maintained solidarity, extending unwavering support to one another.

This enduring unity manifested prominently in February this year among residents of Collingswood, New Jersey. In response to the plight of Jeannine Cook, owner of Ida’s Bookshop, who publicly shared her struggles with the heightened rent demands, the community rallied fervently. Their collective efforts culminated in a successful fundraiser, symbolizing not only their commitment to preserving Black-owned businesses but also their dedication to mutual aid and empowerment within their community. Such instances underscore the enduring strength and resilience fostered by fraternal solidarity among Black individuals and communities.

On January 3, Cook informed the New Jersey community that Ida’s Bookshop faced imminent closure because the landlord had raised the rent, implying that the store may not be able to serve local customers for Black History Month, as its lease was scheduled to expire in February.

“Just so folks aren’t alarmed if we potentially have to move/close, our landlord is going up on rent at a rate that we cannot afford – all we sell are books – and if you can imagine the margins ain’t great. Our lease ironically ends in February (Blk History Month) which could mean sadly one of a handful of Blk-owned businesses would be closing during Blk History Month,” Cook shared on her Instagram page.

Amidst a bleak outlook, Cook devised an unconventional business arrangement with the landlord, as detailed by CBS News. She proposed paying a full year of rent in exchange for a modest increase in the rate—a proposition the landlord ultimately accepted. However, Cook was now confronted with the daunting task of acquiring funds beyond her reach.

Unbeknownst to Cook, her Instagram post drew the attention of Isis Williams, president of the Haddon Township Equity Initiative, prompting him to step in and offer assistance.

Williams and Cook opted to organize a modern-day rent party on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, mirroring the gatherings of Black tenants in Harlem, NY, during the 1920s, aimed at addressing steep rent challenges. Their goal was to brainstorm strategies for keeping the shop operational. Simultaneously, they created a GoFundMe page to raise $23,000 for the new rent.

On the day of the party, they created an atmosphere of music, camaraderie, and brainstorming sessions to devise ways to sustain the shop. Later that evening, when Cook checked, they had reached $19,000. Five days after the campaign’s launch, they met the fundraising goal.

At the time of going to press, the fundraising had amassed an nearly $27,000 thanks to some 375 donors.

“We met the goal. $23,000+ raised for another year in our current location at Ida’s Bookshop while we work to purchase a permanent space in Collingswood. This was done in less than a week,” Cook shared on Instagram. “A HUGE testament to your SHOWING UP in so many ways on behalf of yourselves, each other, us, and the future.”

Cook added, “Just writing to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what we’ve done TOGETHER and what we will continue to do together. Thank you to the team from @haddontownshipequityinitiative for coaching us through this process.”

Situated at 734 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, NJ, Ida’s Bookshop commenced operations in 2021, building on the accomplishments of its predecessor, Harriet’s Bookshop. Located at 258 E. Girard Ave, Harriet’s Bookshop debuted a year earlier, in February 2020 in Philadelphia. Both ventures were established by Jeanine A. Cook, born in Brooklyn, NY. The shops are named in honor of Ida B. Wells and Harriet Tubman, paying tribute to these influential Black figures who blazed trails for countless future generations.

“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,” says Cook.

Cook’s upbringing was steeped in a love for literature, with her mother serving as a librarian and teacher, and her father was an electrician, preacher, and devoted reader. She attributes her early affinity for reading to her familial environment. Cook pursued her education at the University of the Arts, earning a B.A. in Communication Media Studies in 2005, followed by an M.A. in Design and Applied Arts in 2014. In 2022, she furthered her academic achievements by attaining an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.

Ultimately, this solidarity displayed by the residents underscores the enduring strength and resilience cultivated through fraternal solidarity among Black individuals and communities.

Cook remains steadfast in her commitment to advancing literacy and knowledge and establishing her bookshops as vital cultural centers for the Black community in South Jersey and its broader vicinity.

“Our bookshop celebrates women authors, artists, and activists under the guiding light of historic heroine, Ida B. Wells,” says Cook.