Dawn Harris-Martine, 82, grew up between the bookshelves of the children’s section at the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library. Now, she runs her own toy and bookstore to promote literacy in her Harlem community.
A red and yellow banner plastered to a brownstone on West 120th St. off Lenox Avenue marks Grandma’s Place: “Harlem’s Premier Toy & Children’s Book Boutique,” read blue letters stretching across the middle of the sign. The woman-owned and Black powered book and toy store has served generations of families in the neighborhood for 22 years.
On the way to Marcus Garvey Park, kids stop by Grandma’s Place to read a book, pick up a toy or say “Hi” to Grandma Dawn.
“Sometimes it’s the second or third generation of parents that are bringing their kids in, and they know me as Grandma Dawn. I’m everybody’s grandma,” Harris-Martine said. “If they have a problem, or they’re looking for a particular kind of book, or that particular kind of toy or something that’s going to build a skill for their kids, they come to me.”
Curriculum guides, individual skills books, toys to build certain skills, math books and graphic novels stock the shelves. During the pandemic when kids were doing school at home, Harris-Martine’s curriculum guides helped many families keep their kids on track.
The books stacked on red carts and lining the walls, from floor-to-ceiling, are about financial literacy, the culture and history of Harlem, occupations, how to do things, hair texture and skin color and autobiographies by people who have overcome great obstacles. Other books help children and parents navigate difficult topics like divorce, death, bullying, sibling rivalry, moving and adoption.
“It’s a little bit of everything that kids try to explore,” said Jah Turner who has worked in the store for eight years. Turner, 37, met Harris-Martine when he was 15 while at work with his father who was Harris-Martine’s contractor.
Harris-Martine curates all the books on the shelves at Grandma’s Place.
“I read them, and I make sure that they’re with what I want,” Harris-Martine.“Everybody can find themselves in this store.”
Harris-Martine is bringing a vital resource to an area where literacy rates are low compared to the city as a whole. Only 16 percent of students in Harlem schools were passing the state-wide English Language Arts exam, compared to the 31 percent of students throughout the greater New York City system who were getting proficient results, according to a 2015 analysis.
In Central Harlem, 39% of adults have college degrees, but one in five adults has not completed high school, according to NYC Health. Low literacy has been found to be associated with lower educational attainment, and low literacy among parents is a strong predictor of a child’s inability to thrive academically. Over a quarter of elementary school students in Central Harlem missed 20 or more school days in 2015.
More than a store: ‘It’s a labor of love’
Harris-Martine not only wants to help promote literacy in her neighborhood, but also wants the books in her store to show kids that they can be anything they want to be no matter their race, gender size or circumstance. She picks books that will push kids to think about their passions and their potential.
“So kids can understand that it’s not where you start, it’s how you finish,” Harris-Martine said. “Books opened up my world. And I know that it would do that for the children also.”
Harris-Martine grew up off Lenox Ave. with her sister, who is five years older, and a single mother. Her mom worked three jobs: two full-time jobs and one part-time job on the weekends.
Betty Jean Holmes, Harris-Martine’s sister, would pick Harris-Martine up from school and drop her off at the public library so Holmes could go hang out with her friends.
“The library was my babysitter,” Harris-Martine said.
No one was around to teach Harris-Martine, so she taught herself.
“I read every book in the library and found out about things that I wanted to try,” Harris-Martine said.“I learned what I learned from books.”
When Harris-Martine started kindergarten at Public School 170 in Harlem, she already knew how to read. She was the teacher’s assistant and loved reading to other kids.
“And so I became a teacher at the age of six, and I eventually became a teacher later on in life,” Harris-Martine said.
She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Teachers College at Columbia University and began teaching elementary school students in 1985.
“Books and literature have changed my life. I was the first one in my family to go to college, and after that my children went to college and my grandchildren are in college,” Harris-Martine said. “And you know, it changes the world, and it changes your perspective if you’re able to read.”
When Harris-Martine started teaching second grade, she noticed that the parents of the children who were not doing well in school didn’t know how to read. So, she opened Grandma’s Place as an intergenerational literacy center in the vacant shop next to her brownstone.
Harris-Martine wanted to call the literacy center “Kindred Literacy Center.” But her granddaughter disagreed.
“She said, ‘Oh no grandma this is your space, it’s Grandma’s Place,’” Harris-Martine said.
The center became a place where children, adults and seniors learned to read.
After six years, 25,000 volumes of books filled the center. When the building’s rent started to increase, Harris-Martine decided to try to sell some of the books to help her pay the rent.
But no one was buying the books, so she started filling the space with educational games and toys to attract customers.
The idea took off and Grandma’s Place became a toy and bookstore. Harris-Martine’s daughter and granddaughter helped her run the store. Later, people, like Turner, who lived on the block and in the neighborhood started to work there too.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Harris-Martine, who got her first toy, a G.I. Joe doll, at 21-years-old. As a kid, Christmas morning presents usually included a warm coat, underwear, fruits and nuts.
“I’m hoping that this will be a legacy that I’ve passed down to my children and to children of Harlem, and that this bookstore will be here and carry on and continue to do things that need to be done in the community,” Harris-Martine said.