Sister’s Uptown Bookstore Brings New Energy to Harlem!

I walked in on, “We gotta put our heads together and figure out how to get these boys reading,” and knew I found home-away-from-home in Harlem. Janifer Wilson, founder and owner of Sister’s Upton Bookstore & Cultural Center, stood in one of the last black bookstores in Manhattan. The 66-year old was talking with a customer who needed help selecting decent comics for her 13-year old. Janifer thinks about literacy incessantly. The other recurring concern is community. She dedicates her life to curating a bookstore that is a catalyst for the strength of black culture. In addition to the rarest African-American literary titles, Janifer sells Jamaican ginger beer, Afrocentric greeting cards, sweets, incense, candles and other goodies.

Bookstore 2

But if you never pull a title from her shelves or buy a single cinnamon muffin, Janifer hopes you come experience the community-building. Sister’s Uptown hosts multiple book clubs for all age groups, several book signings a month, open mics, community meetings and whatever else Harlem may need. You might also catch the regulars darting to snatch up a lemon cake slice before work with a quick wave. Janifer stresses the Sister’s Uptown mission is bigger than books. “It’s not my bookstore. It’s for us. Community means all of us.”

She opened Sister’s Uptown in 2000 as a bookstore only, with business management training and the blessing of elders in her neighborhood who were former black business owners. “They passed me the torch,” she said.

Janifer credits her inspiration to add the cultural center component to a 2007 trip to Ghana with the Sister’s Uptown book club. “When you go there, the ancestral energy is so prevalent. There’s a warmth…Clarity came. I became real clear about my mission in life. That’s when I came back and added the component of a cultural center.”

Wooden floors give the center a homey feel. Artwork, African masks, jewelry and photography neatly cover the walls but good conversation and cultural pride take up the most space. Books an avid reader would likely not find at Barnes & Noble perch on the shelves in twos and threes. Assata and Sister Citizen and Souls of Black Folk. If Sister’s Uptown were a candy store for readers, every customer would have cavities but the payoff would be sweet. “[This store is] the best,” said Maria Joa, a regular customer from the Dominican Republic. She visits the store every month to buy books in her native Spanish tongue.

Bookstore 3Janifer believes reading connects people of color to their history and a sense of pride by chronicling unsung stories. Paperback or hardback—any physical books will do. Just not Kindle. “Now they’ve come up with electronics. The e-books, the Kindle, Nook and all of these things. So now, people are not connected to paper. That same dynamic of disconnecting and discord is what has happened to our families. We used to eat together. We used to pray together. We used to come together as a unit. To me, that same energy has been used in the literacy avenue for separatism because we don’t communicate anymore.”

A connection between literacy and family is the foundation. Sister’s Uptown is 100% family-owned and operated. Janifer’s daughter, Kori Wilson, manages the store and its social media. Kori and Janifer discuss doctor visits between reminding each other about book orders. Brandon, Kori’s 10-year old son, sweeps in front of the shop among other small jobs. Her one-year old Jordyn melts customers’ hearts as she pads through the store pulling books from shelves, pretending to read them. Both Janifer and Kori take turns keeping up with the kids as the other takes calls or cashes out a customer. They each swell with pride when separately asked how it feels to have three generations of family in the store. “I’m elated. My daughter is just growing up in the bookstore, around books and that’s normal for her where a lot of kids don’t have that type of exposure to even one book in the home,” said Kori. “I’m grooming my son so that when he becomes of age, he can add his own flavor to [the store] and take the reins.”
But Sister’s Uptown won’t wait until young Brandon hits 18 to expand. Kori encourages her mother to network in the community while she handles social media. The self-described “science geek” grew up in the bookstore and upon completing her certifications in nutrition, aims to introduce healthy natural products to the café. Janifer encourages customers to share what events they want at the store. “Every day I’m trying to think of ways I can bring people here,” said Janifer.

(via Facebook)

(Janifer Wilson | via Facebook)

The work is paying off since bestselling authors personally contact Sister’s Uptown to host book signings. Omar Tyree held a book signing two Fridays ago for his latest novel, All Access. On November 28th, Sister Souljah will come to promote her latest tale, Midnight III: A Moment of Silence. When Janifer shared that news, we both took a moment to fan out like bookworms are supposed to. She squealed and clapped as we laughed about her not believing “the Sister Souljah” would dial her up directly.

Janifer hopes one day authors may connect with Sister’s Uptown in places other than Harlem as she opens more stores in book deserts, especially in the rural south where she grew up. “The vision is to bottle this energy and take it all over the universe.” It clicked earlier but cemented as she smiled with her eyes: I got what Janifer meant about ancestral energy. Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural center is not about big names drawing bigger crowds.

It’s about the black community lifting itself up like it had to since the beginning of time. It’s about being a safe space. About black ownership. Literacy. Family. Legacy. The vision Janifer and her family share for themselves, the bookstore and the black community is beyond remarkable.

And so much bigger than books.

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