Spotlight On: Sister’s Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center

Danny WangJuly 31, 2018

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.