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Dawn Harris-Martine, 82, grew up between the shelves in the children’s section of Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library. Today, she runs her own toy bookstore to promote literacy in her Harlem community.
A red and yellow banner stuck to a brownstone on West 120th St. off Lenox Avenue Marks Grandmother’s place: âHarlem’s Premier Toy & Children’s Book Boutique,â ââread blue letters stretching across the middle of the sign. The black-owned, female-owned book and toy store has served generations of neighborhood families for 22 years.
On their way to Marcus Garvey Park, children stop at Grandma’s Place to read a book, pick up a toy, or say “hello” to Grandma Dawn.
âSometimes it’s the second or third generation of parents who bring their kids, and they know me as Grandma Dawn. I’m everyone’s grandmother, âsaid Harris-Martine. âIf they have a problem, or if they’re looking for a particular type of book, or that particular type of toy or something that will develop a skill for their children, they come to me. “
Teaching guides, individual skill books, toys for developing certain skills, math books and graphic novels fill the shelves. During the pandemic, when children were homeschooled, Harris-Martine education guides helped many families keep their children on track.
The books stacked on red carts and lining the walls, floor to ceiling, cover financial literacy, Harlem culture and history, trades, the way of doing things, hair texture and the skin color and autobiographies of people who have overcome great obstacles. Other books help kids and parents navigate difficult topics like divorce, death, bullying, sibling rivalry, moving, and adoption.
âThat’s kind of all the kids try to explore,â said Jah Turner, who has worked in the store for eight years. Turner, 37, met Harris-Martine at the age of 15 while working with his father who was Harris-Martine’s entrepreneur.
Harris-Martine manages all the books on the shelves at Grandma’s Place.
âI read them, and I make sure they match what I want,â Harris-Martine. “Anyone can meet in this store.”
Harris-Martine brings a vital resource to an area with low literacy rates compared to the city as a whole. Only 16% of students in Harlem schools passed the statewide English Language Arts exam, compared to 31% of students in the entire New York City system who did well. according to a 2015 analysis.
In downtown Harlem, 39% of adults have college degrees, but one in five adults has not completed high school, according to NYC Health. A low level of literacy was found to be associated with a low level of education, and the low literacy level of parents is a good predictor of the inability of the child to develop academically. More than 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 whatever they want to be, no matter what race, gender, or who they are. situation. She chooses books that will inspire children to think about their passions and their potential.
âSo the kids can understand that it’s not where you start, it’s how you end,â Harris-Martine said. âBooks have opened up my world. And I know it would for kids too.
Harris-Martine grew up near Lenox Avenue with her sister, who is five years older, and a single mother. Her mother had three jobs: two full time and one part time on weekends.
Harris-Martine’s sister Betty Jean Holmes would pick up Harris-Martine from school and drop her off at the public library so Holmes could hang out with her friends.
âThe library was my babysitter,â Harris-Martine said.
No one was there to teach Harris-Martine, so she taught herself.
âI read all the books in the library and found things that I wanted to try,â Harris-Martine said. “I learned what I learned from books.”
When Harris-Martine started kindergarten at 170 Public School in Harlem, she could already read. She was the teacher’s assistant and loved to read to other children.
“And so I became a teacher when I was six, and I finally became a teacher later in life,” Harris-Martine said.
She attended Sarah Lawrence College and Teachers College at Columbia University and began teaching elementary school students in 1985.
âBooks and literature have changed my life. I was the first in my family to go to college, and after that my kids went to college and my grandkids went to college, âHarris-Martine said. “And you know, it changes the world, and it changes your perspective if you can read.”
When Harris-Martine started teaching in grade two, she noticed that parents of children who were not doing well in school could not read. So, she opened Grandma’s Place as an intergenerational literacy center in the vacant store next to her brownstone.
Harris-Martine wanted to call the literacy center âKindred Literacy Centerâ. But her granddaughter disagreed.
“She said, ‘Oh no, Grandma, this is your space, this is Grandma’s place,” “said Harris-Martine.
The center became a place where children, adults and the elderly learned to read.
After six years, 25,000 volumes of books filled the center. When the rent for the building started going up, Harris-Martine decided to try selling some of the books to help pay the rent.
But no one was buying the books, so she started to fill the space with educational games and toys to attract customers.
The idea took off and Grandma’s Place became a toy bookstore. Harris-Martine’s daughter and granddaughter helped her run the store. Later, people like Turner who lived in the neighborhood and in the neighborhood started working there as well.
âIt’s a labor of love,â said Harris-Martine, who received her first toy, a GI Joe doll, at age 21. As a child, Christmas morning gifts usually included a warm coat, underwear, fruit, and nuts.
âI hope this will be a legacy that I have passed on to my children and the children of Harlem, and that this bookstore will be there and will continue and continue to do things that need to be done in the community,â said Harris -Martine.