Spotlight On: Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center

Janifer P. Wilson at Sisters Uptown Bookstore, Harlem, Manhattan, 2017, Photo credit, The Story Institute.

In honor of our 20th anniversary and in celebration of our upcoming annual benefit and auction on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, Reach Out and Read of Greater New York is turning the spotlight on local bookstores to champion their work in spreading the joy of books and a love of reading. In the months leading up to June, we will profile the people and the businesses who give families the gift of reading. Our annual benefit and auction theme this year is “Every child deserves a story” and we are asking our community what that phrase means to them. We want to hear from you! What does every child deserves a story mean to YOU?  Tell us in the comments below.

In 2000, Janifer Wilson opened Sister’s Uptown Bookstore in Sugar Hill, after observing that there were no bookstores serving the community. After seven years of business, the bookstore expanded to become Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center, providing a space for artists, organizers and culture workers to share, lecture, and foster community. Sister’s remains a family affair, co-run by family member Kori Wilson. We’re excited to highlight Sister’s as a book purveyor, neighborhood gem, and a source for inspiration in taking leaps of faith.

When did you know that you wanted to open a bookstore?

In 1999 after observing that there were no bookstores in the community ( it was considered Sugar Hill back then) and wanting to embark on an entrepreneurial endeavor. It just made sense.

You describe opening Sister’s Uptown Bookstore in 2000 as taking a leap of faith. What memorable points led up to getting to a place where you were ready to jump?

The memories of my childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s, there was no depiction of anyone who looked like me in any of the books we studied from. All of our books were secondhand and only told the stories of prominent white figures. I was made to feel invisible and therefore dreamed of the day when I could look in a book and see my true story. When I had gathered the means to finally become a business owner, my dreams became realized in this bookstore.

Seven years after opening Sister’s Uptown Bookstore, you opened Sister’s Uptown Cultural Center, was the opening of the cultural center a natural progression for you and the business? How did you hope it would serve the community and has it surpassed what you envisioned?

Yes, it was a natural progression. We added the cultural center after we started having more non-literary events at the store. We realized foot traffic didn’t always yield the necessary income we needed to sustain the business. The cultural center was a way to include the entire community. Poets, Visual artists, community organizations, health forums, lecture series etc. We are still serving the needs of the community in a great way and plan to continue and do more.

What were your favorite books to read as both a child and a teenager?

As a child growing up in small town Georgia during the civil rights movement and Jim Crow Era, I actually didn’t have a favorite book. However, as a teenager, I discovered The Autobiography of Malcolm X and authors like W.E.B Dubois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington.

What book or books are you enjoying reading presently?

I recently completed The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and Fistful of Honey by Malena Crawford. Both excellent works of fiction!

What business advice do you have for other people who want to open a bookstore or cultural center?

We are currently down to 53 or 54 Black-owned bookstores Nationwide. It is absolutely imperative that we support the remaining independent bookstores. Opening a business like this is more of a passion project or as I like to call it, “an Assignment.” If folks are opening as a livelihood, it is probably not the most lucrative choice. In the beginning, you may just break even and make enough to pay the bills. Always remain creative, get involved in your community and you will be successful. Daily I give thanks for this assignment and the opportunity to co-create with the Universe. It has been an arduous 18-year journey but we are committed to and take pride in preserving our literary history, present and future.

What is the best piece of business advice that you received?

There is no one way to get the job done. Regardless of the appearance continue to create a way to exist.

What are some of your favorite events that Sister’s hosts?

Some of my favorite events are the African Folk Heritage Circle’s “Folks Telling Tales”, every 1st Tuesday. They are National storytellers and griots giving an oral history through stories, songs and poetry. Also, the Women’s Drum Circle is one of the most powerful events that we offer. Dispelling the myth that women shouldn’t play the drum, the universal energy from this group while making the music of our heritage is amazing!

Running a business is a job that keeps you very busy, what is something that you love to do to decompress?

I take every opportunity to get quiet and still to receive peace through meditation and a good book, of course.

Our theme this year is “every child deserves a story.” How do you interpret that phrase?

Start by telling the children the truth about who they are and from whence the come. This is how they will be able to heal the generational ills of the past and create a true opportunity to embark on their path to purposefulness.

At the Reach Out and Read of Greater New York Annual Benefit and Auction, June 5, 2018, at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, Andrea Davis Pinkney will receive the organization’s Mills Tannenbaum Award for Childhood Literacy.

Pinkney is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of numerous books for children and young adults, including picture books, novels, works of historical fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Her books have been awarded multiple Coretta Scott King Book Awards, Jane Addams Children’s Literature Honor citations, four NAACP Image Award nominations, the Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor medal, as well as several Parenting Publication Gold Medals, and American Library Association Notable Book citations.

Pinkney was named one of the “The 25 Most Influential People in Our Children’s Lives” by Children’s Health Magazine, and is among The Network Journal’s “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business.” She was included in Good Housekeeping and Women’s Day magazines’ “50 Over 50 Extraordinary Women,” and was named among L’Oreal’s “10 Women Who Light Up the Arts Scene.”

Pinkney was recently selected to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. This award recognizes her significant contributions to literacy for young people provided through a body of work that brings a deeper understanding of children’s books, reading, and their impact. Additionally, she is the recipient of the Regina Medal, a citation for her distinguished contribution to the field of children’s literature.

In addition to her work as an author, Pinkney has had an illustrious career as a children’s book publisher and editor. She is currently Scholastic Vice President, Executive Editor, a role in which she has acquired and published a robust mix of titles by authors such as Christopher Paul Curtis, Patricia Polacco, Allen Say, Sharon G. Flake, and Lois Lowry. She has edited works by Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Walter Dean Myers.

During the course of her career, Pinkney has launched many high-profile publishing and entertainment entities, including Disney Publishing’s Jumpat the Sun imprint, the first African- American children’s book imprint at a major publishing company; the hugely popular Cheetah Girls series, and the teen book Serving from the Hip by world-class tennis pros Venus and Serena Williams, an Oprah featured selection. Andrea is a graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. She lives in New York City with her husband, award- winning illustrator Brian

As part of the run-up to our 20th Anniversary Benefit and Gala, June 5 at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, we are profiling local bookstores making a difference to young readers in their communities.

Writer and bookstore owner, Emma Straub, and her husband, designer Michael Fusco-Straub, opened Books Are Magic in May of 2017 in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Emma and Michael lived near the longstanding beloved bookstore, Book Court, and when the owners decided to close their doors citing retirement, Emma and Michael were spurred into action. “It’s surprising how quickly we made such an enormous decision,” says Straub over the phone. “We talked to the owners of Book Court over the months about how we could carry on their legacy.” As Books Are Magic celebrates a year of bringing cultural conversations, events, and the love of reading to the Cobble Hill community, we asked Straub what she has learned over the year, and found out which are her favorite childhood books.

ROR GNY: After being in operation for nearly a year, what have you learned as a bookstore/business owner?

ES: Pretty quickly, I learned the importance of delegating. My husband and I could not do everything. We have come to depend on our staff — our staff is fabulous! They take pride because they have real agency. It’s not just me and Michael telling them what to do.

ROR GNY: What books did you love to read when you were a child?

ES: My first favorite book that I remember was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. I loved this book so much that I tried to convince my husband to name our second child Ferdinand. I like its message: It’s okay if you like to sit in the shade and sniff the flowers. Not everyone has to be the biggest and toughest bull. Just be you. I also revisited Roald Dahl’s The BFG with my son. It’s so fun to read out loud. It’s all about farting. I was also into scary books  — maybe because my dad [Peter Straub] wrote scary books — authors like Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan.

ROR GNY: What books are you reading now that you’re enjoying?   

ES: I’m reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It. The stories are so good. They are full of surprises and they keep taking left turns, which makes reading them so pleasurable.

ROR GNY: You are a writer, writing the novels Modern LoversThe VacationersLaura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and the short story collection Other People We Married. Where do you start when sitting down to write a story?

ES: It depends. I think it’s different with every book. With my first novel, I had this idea about a woman’s whole life. I wanted something epic. With my next book it was particular characters. For my third book, the idea started with a situation. The book I’m working on now is generational; it’s a story about women and how they interact with one another.  

ROR GNY: Our benefit theme this year is Every Child Deserves a Story… how do you interpret that phrase?

ES: Every child deserves to see themselves represented in the pages of a book. I think the publishing industry has been rightly interrogated in recent years. It also seems to me — I don’t know if this is correct — that children’s books seem to have a faster publishing time. Now when I sit down with a sales rep, there are so many more children’s books that have children of color as the main characters and their experiences. One book I love is called Harriet Gets Carried Away. Harriet is a child of color, she’s adventurous, she loves costumes, and has two dads. It’s just a nice story.  

ROR GNY: You seem very good at pursuing your interests. For anyone pursuing a dream, what advice would you give them?

ES: This may sound a little cliché, but keep doing it, have confidence, and believe that you can. With practice things become more possible. Rejection and failure are a part of it and it doesn’t matter how many times you fail. Only you know that.

Photo Credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

We are thrilled to announce that the Reach Out and Read of Greater New York Medical Director, instrumental in founding the organization 20 years ago, Dr. Leora Mogilner, will accept the Literacy Champion award at our upcoming 20th Anniversary Benefit Gala on June 5, 2018 at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park.

Dr. Mogilner is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai where she oversees resident training in Advocacy and Community Pediatrics and is Associate Program Director for the pediatric residency program.  

Dr. Mogilner founded the Mount Sinai Reach Out and Read program in 1997 and has been Medical Director of Reach Out and Read of Greater New York since 2009. She was one of the founding Board members of ROR GNY and still serves on the Board where she is a member of the Program and Special Initiatives Committee.  

Speaking with families about reading together and giving out books to her patients is one of her favorite parts of her job as a pediatrician. Dr. Mogilner is a founder and co-director of the New York State Pediatric Advocacy Coalition (NYSPAC), a consortium of pediatric physicians and community organizations in New York State dedicated to improving resident training in Advocacy and Community Pediatrics and promoting children’s health in NY State.  

Dr. Mogilner lives in Manhattan with her husband Richard Linhart and their four children. Some of her earliest memories are reading “Are You My Mother” and “The Little House” (among other favorites) with her own parents.

“One of the things I love most about Reach Out and Read is that, as pediatricians, we’re so often saying ‘no, don’t put cereal in the bottle,’ ‘don’t put your baby to sleep on their belly,’” says Dr. Mogilner.  “Reading is something positive you can do. It’s a fun, wonderful thing you can do with your child. This is guidance we need to give to the families we serve.”

We are delighted to honor Eileen FitzPatrick with the Reach Out and Read of Greater New York Impact Award, in recognition of her integral role in starting Reach Out and Read in New York and her dedication and fortitude as board chair during the organization’s early years.

Eileen began with Reach Out and Read as a volunteer.

“I loved working with families and showing parents books, encouraging them to read to their child from birth on. It didn’t matter if they couldn’t read. We’d look at the pictures and tell a story. You realize the child just wants to sit on your lap and be engaged that way.”

As board chair, Eileen reports on the thrill of getting the organization’s very first grants, which required tenacity and perseverance on behalf of ROR GNY’s early leaders.

“It’s hard to get one unless you have one. So we were so excited and felt validated when we were finally awarded. The early stages of an organization like this are intense. They are hands-on; you just pursue every avenue you possibly can. Rejoice when things go right and move on when things don’t.”

Eileen watched the organization grow and roll out in new hospitals.

“As we grew we truly became the organization that served ‘Greater New York.’”

Eileen reflects on her time with the organization with happiness and pride. She loved her time as a volunteer as well as her tenure as board chair.

“The premise is simple. Reach Out and Read of Greater New York gets books into the hands of the children who need them.”