Dawn Harris Martine knows Harlem better than most; it’s where she was born and raised and where she has lived for the past 83 years. As a child, she had a hard-working mother who took on three jobs to care for Martine and her siblings. Martine is fond of her community because her neighbors would look after her and practically helped her mother raise her. At school, Martine was a bright student and school teachers hold a special place in her heart. This inspired her to become an educator herself.
“The school teachers were my heroes because they were my mother figures in the schools,” she says. “The kind of encouragement I got from my teachers was the kind of encouragement I needed from my mom. But my mom wasn’t at home, so I kind of transferred that to the teachers, so they were my heroes.”
Martine followed in her teachers’ footsteps and became an educator herself at the age of 31. She transferred her passion for books and her reading skills to many students over the years. Teaching literacy was Martine’s calling and she absolutely loved her years of teaching.
“[My favorite grade to teach] were second graders. They were just the right group. They loved stories and they were not jaded like the third graders, they still believed in fairytales and loved to read. So I found second grade was the absolute right grade for me to have,” she says.
However, while she taught kids of the same age each was different, some were more advanced than others and others couldn’t read at all. During the parent-teacher conferences, Martine saw a direct correlation between the parents’ reading level and their child’s reading level. If the parent wasn’t a reader, the child likely wasn’t encouraged to do so either. It was also difficult for the parents to answer their child’s questions. Martine saw it all started with the parents and she wanted to help.
Then, in 1999, just a few doors down from the Harlem brownstone where she lived, the storefront of a building became available. Martine decided that that was her chance to make a difference and she opened a literacy center.
“I opened the literacy center and my granddaughter was seven years old at the time. I was going to call it the Kindred Literacy Center and my granddaughter said ‘No grandma it’s your place, let’s call it ‘Grandma’s Place,’” says Martine.
Out of her teacher’s salary, Martine opened Grandma’s Place and was known as Grandma Dawn. At the literacy center she taught hundreds of neighbors how to read, from homeschooled children to 70-year-old folks who wanted to learn how to read the Bible and parents who didn’t know how to read but wanted to help their kids.
Roughly five years after its opening, the rent of the literacy center doubled. Martine decided to begin selling some of the books she had collected over the years to make extra money. Then, she began adding toys. Toys that were educational and caused critical thinking. Since then, Grandma’s Place turned into a book and toy store with rare yet educational and diverse finds.
“Each [product] is carefully curated. I pick every toy that comes into this store,” Martine says. “This is 600 feet and I want to make sure that if there is a parent or a teacher to pick something up, they will pick something that is an educational toy or something that is going to help the child develop one way or another.”
Grandma’s Place sells products that are not only entertaining f but also teaches kids a new skill, a new lesson or a virtue. The numerous puzzles aim to teach patience and critical thinking. Inclusiveness is represented on the store’s bookshelves, which feature stories of kids of all skin tones and hair types. Martine’s favorite book right now is “Make Your Own Money: How Kids Can Earn It, Save It, Spend It and Dream Big” by Ty Allan Jackson. It teaches children about finance, entrepreneurship and economics. You’ll also find games that highlight the beauty of the neighborhood such as Harlem-opoly, a Harlem Renaissance edition of Monopoly. Martine loves her neighborhood and it’s important that the store represents everything Harlem is.
“I created the kind of toy store I thought was needed in this community. It’s a multicultural community. But yet and still even when you go into department stores in Harlem you see very few Black dolls. So I make sure to have Asian dolls, Hispanic dolls, Black dolls, White dolls, as well as books [that feature them too],” she says.
The store has remained successful despite the rise in popularity of electronic games (there are no video games sold at Grandma’s Place) or big stores like Target, Walmart or Amazon. People from the community continue to shop and support Grandma’s place.
“People are always trying to support small businesses,” she says. “Here, they can come in and see something, touch something. Sometimes when you buy things online it doesn’t meet your expectations, but at the end of the day people want to support small businesses. I’ve heard [my customers] say that when they come in, so we have had a lot of support.”
Even though the store isn’t a literacy center anymore, Martine has not strayed away from the Grandma’s Place’s original mission: to teach kids and parents how to read and love books. Up until the pandemic, Grandma’s place still held literacy classes, book signings and other events. Most have been put on pause but will be returning this year.
Martine recently welcomed a group of kids from a homeless shelter for a read aloud. People from the community donated winter supplies for them. The kids spent the day reading books and took some gifts back with them.
Martine plans to pass the store to her granddaughter and her long time employee, Jaa. While Martine is not planning on expanding now, she won’t be surprised if the next generation opens more Grandma’s Places across the city, but for now she is satisfied continuing to spread the beauty of literacy to children across the five boroughs.
“I’m 84 years old and I will be passing this on to them to continue for it to be here and continue to do the same thing that I have done with it. It’s necessary,” she says. “Sometimes we have second and third generations of people returning who were kids [who came to the store] and now they are adults bringing their children to the store. They know that when they get a shopping bag from Grandma’s Place they are getting something special that they really like.”