“I grew up feeling invisible because I never saw me in a book,” says Harlem bookseller Janifer P. Wilson, seated at a cafe table in Sisters Uptown Bookstore, her 19-year-old independent bookstore. Jazz plays in the background, and three walls of bookshelves are stocked with titles organized by categories ranging from “Black is Beautiful” to contemporary best-sellers.
Growing up in Southwest Georgia during the 1950s and ’60s, Wilson, 70, noticed at an early age that black people, especially women, were largely written out of history and school curricula. “So I became a rebel,” she smiles. She couldn’t understand the South’s racial divide and wasn’t afraid to speak up about it, so her parents sent her North, where she’d presumably be safer in her quest for self-expression and awareness.
“When I ventured to New York, I saw the village of Harlem, where black folk were proud and historic, and I just became elated in terms of who I was because I could see me,” says Wilson, who came to NYC in 1968.
She soon moved into a co-op on Amsterdam Avenue, where she’s lived for nearly 40 years and, like most New Yorkers with a good real estate setup, never plans to leave.
In the late 1990s, the co-op had three open commercial spaces, and Wilson, who worked in health care but had an entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to run her own business. She first proposed a food co-op to the shareholders, but they didn’t buy the concept, she said. Next was a bookstore, which the community was also lacking.
For research, Wilson visited now-shuttered African-American-owned bookstores in Harlem. She started with the neighborhood’s oldest, Liberation Bookstore, run by the late, legendary Una Mulzac. “I sat at her feet, and said, ‘Ms. Una, I have a thought — what do you think about a bookstore uptown?’” Wilson recalls.
She also visited the Tree of Life bookstore, a favorite spot of hers as a teenager for “mind-blowing books,” and Black Books Plus.
From there, she drafted a proposal, business plan and promise to “bring light to the community,” and in early 2000 opened Sisters.
“Living in this community at that time was very, very difficult,” Wilson says. “It was a very dark place. There was a lot of drug addiction, drug sales and poverty. People were having a really hard time trying to exist.
“I wanted to stay in this community, raise my family and make a difference,” she says.
In the beginning, neighbors were skeptical her new business would make it because it was in a residential area empty of foot traffic during the daytime and “because black folk don’t read,” Wilson laughs.
“That was my challenge,” she says. “I wanted to present, preserve and house books written to, from and by African Americans. I started that quest to bring literature to my community, so that folk could embrace their own culture and heal.”
Artists started coming into the bookstore during the day, and Wilson added “cultural center” to her store’s title, planning nightly events like book signings, book clubs for adults and children, poetry, writing workshops, spoken word to music, African folk heritage circles, community events for local groups and more. To help with seasonally slow sales, her daughter, Kori, who worked at Starbucks, helped set up a cafe inside the shop, and a small gift section in back stocks items from local artists and entrepreneurs.
To this day, Wilson, who considers the bookstore a general interest shop with a focus on black and independent authors, is “always adding and enhancing” her business. She’ll ask newcomers to the community what they want to see, and will put those titles in their hands within three or four days. Young people who grew up with the store have also looked to her for business advice for an array for startups and ventures.
It is the youngest generation that inspires Wilson to keep her store running. She stocks gently-used books for children (who often think the shop is a library, she said) to read in the store. When she notices a child repeatedly reading the same book, she’ll gift it to them.
“My inspiration comes from children,” Wilson says. “If they see and learn to love reading, rather than seeing it as a chore, it can change the direction of their lives.”
- Wilson keeps a free basket of books outside the store to “encourage reading” for all. A discounted children’s basket also offers titles for 50 cents or a dollar. Sisters takes book donations, but is currently overrun with boxes of donations.
- Sisters is a popular field trip spot for local students, who will come in for storytelling, drumming or author programs.
- “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin are current top sellers.
- The bookstore is located at 1942 Amsterdam Ave. For more info, visit sistersuptownbookstore.com.