Harlem bookstore works to promote African-American literature

In the noisy streets on the northern edge of Harlem lies a peaceful bookstore rich with culture that has become a local community center.

Sisters Uptown Bookstore opened in 2000, aiming to bring African-American literature back to the then-troubled neighborhood.

The bookstore holds book club meetings, writing workshops, meditation classes, meet-and-greets with authors and art exhibits, and has its own little cafe.

“Growing up in the southwest part of Georgia in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I felt invisible because there was no one who looked like me in the books I was reading,” says Janifer P. Wilson, bookstore owner. “As a result, I felt left out and uncertain of who I was, who will I be and where will I go.”

Wilson became fascinated with Harlem when she moved to New York City at 17. The then-thriving neighborhood was a mecca for African-American culture. She was especially inspired by black-owned bookstores that emphasized history, pride and a sense of belonging.

But, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, drug-related crime made Harlem a dangerous place to raise kids.

“I decided to stay and raise my kids here because it’s a very rich neighborhood in terms of culture and history, and I want my kids to grow up with this,” she says.

Wilson had been a surgical physician assistant for 28 years but left that job to pursue a dream of providing her community with culture and history. This led her to open a bookstore.

Facing New York City’s high rents, in 2007 she added “Cultural Center” to the store’s name, and began to bring local authors, poets, artists and musicians to host workshops and other events. In 2010 she added a cafe to the bookstore to help generate more income.

Artists welcomed the opportunity.

“People have been recommending me to this bookstore for a long time,” says Denise Goring, who has been crafting her own clothing for the last 50 years. “I have showcased my work all over the country, and I have never been to a place with such a warm environment.”

But art comes in many forms.

“She welcomes me,” says Tony “Sunseed” Palmer, who hosts meditation sessions accompanied by gongs and sounds on the last Wednesday of every month. “The sister who owns the space is very receptive.”

The bookstore has become a place where neighborhood children can do their homework, study and learn about their culture.

“We have a lot of newcomers, people of all ages show up” says Gisselle R. Lozada, 21, a bookstore clerk. “A group of 10- to 12-year-old boys come here once a week to do their homework and encourage one another. They refer to each other as kings.”

The bookstore has something for everyone, whether it is art, books, writing, story-telling or just a hot cup of coffee or tea.

Wilson says it does what she had dreamed of. “My premise is black history and culture because that was what was left out of my equation,” says Wilson.

Henry Tamayo is a reporter in the Caplin News’s New York City Bureau.