Grandma’s Place, a toy and bookstore for children located on Lenox Ave. and West 120th St., is a home for everyone in Harlem.
The store has served the Harlem community since 1999. Inside, customers can find a large selection of educational toys, books, curriculum guides, games, dolls and more. It provides Harlem’s children with educational resources to foster their development and confidence, all thanks to one woman, Grandma Dawn.
Grandma Dawn, whose full name is Dawn Crosby Harris-Martine, is an 81-year-old New York City educator and small business owner who has dedicated her life to helping children. She got her nickname from the kids of Harlem, who have come to know and refer to her as such.
Martine’s passion for children’s education began long before Grandma’s Place came to be. According to Martine, it started with her own children, and then grew when she first began teaching in 1984.
“[The children] needed to know that they had a gift and that they were capable of doing something that they enjoy and like and share it with the world,” Martine said.
From then on, Martine’s goal was to help children live up to their potential, discover their interests and expand their confidence.
Through Grandma’s Place, Martine showcased her enthusiasm for education, which has made a genuine difference in the lives of countless children.
Prior to founding Grandma’s Place, Martine used the lower level of her brownstone building as an intergenerational literacy center: a place she referred to as “The Nurturary”). At this center, she taught people of all ages how to read.
When a vacant storefront next to her brownstone became available for rent, she moved her literacy center there. In doing so, Grandma’s Place was born.
In the first five years after its opening, Grandma’s Place served as a literacy center. Martine made the store a toy and book boutique to keep the place open. Each product is carefully selected for optimal educational value.
“I handpick everything that goes in there,” Martine said. “There’s a lot of books and a lot of toys that come out in the market every year but I personally, as a teacher and as a parent, I read every book, play with every toy I curate.”
In addition, no electronic devices can be found at Grandma’s Place. Martine wants to create a space where children have to think critically and independently without the use of screens.
“Toys [and games] that would be fun, open-ended, critically thinking and that get kids learning in a fun way,” Martine said, describing the kinds of products she sells.
Another central aspect of Grandma’s Place is its emphasis on catering to people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
“Harlem is a mixture of all kinds of people, it’s really a melting pot,” Martine said. “So, in my store any number of people of all denominations and ethnicities come through there. And that’s why I have dolls and toys and games with everybody’s ethnicity.”
Customers can come in and request books in certain languages, and if Grandma’s Place doesn’t have it in stock they will order it. Martine recalls receiving a request for a Greek-English book, which she specially ordered for the customer.
Martine also works with a dollmaker in Florida who makes custom dolls based on the customer’s appearance, in order to perfectly represent their ethnic background and features.
“I think it’s really important that the child has a doll that looks like them,” Martine said. “I want the children to see themselves.”
However, Martine doesn’t just have resources for children. Parents can access curriculum guides and attend workshops to stay updated on what their children are learning. Additionally, Grandma’s Place connects families to various resources and services they may need in order to support themselves and their children.
Martine wants to provide a positive learning environment for all those who come to her store.
“I want customers to say that the staff is extremely friendly and helpful — we’re not pushy, we don’t oversell parents. We want the kids to come in and select their own books, look at their own toys,” Martine said. “I want it to be a positive experience there.”
Unfortunately, some New Yorkers don’t feel safe venturing outside their homes. However, Grandma’s Place has put careful thought and effort into curating a positive experience outside of the store and online for those who would rather not come in.
“We have a [Zoom] tour that you go to this link and it literally walks up and down the aisles … we change it weekly and all the products are out there,” Martine said. “[The customer] can call up, they can order it, pay for it by credit card and then they can come and pick it up. Or if they are in Harlem or in an area close by, we will deliver it to them.”
The Zoom link is currently under construction on the store’s website. However, there is a 17-minute-long YouTube video available on the website that gives a tour of the store’s interior.
Martine’s goal is to encourage more children to read, write and express themselves — a mission she hopes to continue this summer through her new venture known as the Bookmobile.
“I really want to put a Bookmobile out there and give away books and other things that children need,” Martine said. “Giving out free books and little things like kits with toothbrushes, pajamas, underwear, socks and things like that for the kids.”
If you visit Grandma’s Place, you can go there knowing that whomever you are, you are always welcome.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 29, 2021 E-print edition. Email Sarah Gil at cu[email protected]