Twenty-one years ago, Dawn Harris-Martine was teaching a second-grade class in Harlem and noticed that children whose parents were working and not interacting with them were not doing well in school. Martine then opened a literacy center in 1999 where she was teaching parents how to work with their children, how to home-school, and how to give their children extra help. She began to sell 25,000 volumes of books, and then her store gained acclaim when she began to sell educational games and toys.   

Now known as “Grandma Dawn,” Martine is an 81-year-old retired schoolteacher who continued with her then literacy center now turned into a children’s book and toy store called Grandma’s Place in Harlem. Martine is a neighborhood resort for the Harlem community to help parents and make children active readers. During the pandemic, she is selling curriculum books to help parents home-school their children.

“This is not just a bookstore or a toy store, it’s were parents can come and talk to a retired teacher, ask questions, and if I don’t have the material, I will order it for the parent, and call them when it comes in, so I’m a neighborhood resource,” said Martine. “It is a passion and a love of mind. This is the most gratifying time of my life other than being a teacher, this is an extension of being a teacher. To have a store where children can come, and I can elevate them and excite their minds, to give them toys and games, it’s an honor and privilege and I take it very seriously.”

Due to the pandemic, nonessential businesses, including Grandmas Place, were closed in March. Martine lives right next to her store, and the people of Harlem would come and speak with Martine about how important Grandma’s Place is and how terrible it was that their children did not have the opportunity to come and buy books and have that kind of resource. Her store reopened in August, and now some parents are forced to home-school their children and it can be difficult for some to teach children at home. Martine has been helping students and parents by selling activity books, curriculum books from pre-K to ninth grade, books on mathematics, science, English, and reading at her store to help parents who are struggling to teach their children.  

“Since I am a retired teacher, I know what kinds of stuff to carry in the store that would help the parents teach a particular thing to a child and what kind of critical thinking games that children can play that can help their critical thinking process,” said Martine.

Besides running her store, in her downtime, Martine is a multicultural toy collector. Growing up, she did not have any toys and the first toy that she had was at 21 years old; she collects dolls, games, and artifacts. She also runs parenting workshops on how to get children involved in reading, how to read to children, and how to think in terms of getting children to do homework. For teachers, she teaches what types of homework you should be giving them, how to talk to children, and how to answer children’s questions. 

In the future, Martine would like to pass down Grandma’s Place to her 28-year-old granddaughter, who is an assistant manager at the store. Her granddaughter, who was 7 years old at the time when Grandmas Place first opened in 1999, has been working at the store for 21 years. Martine’s goal for Grandma’s Place is to be able to pass it down to her granddaughter and for the store to remain open for another 30, 40 years or more.  

“This is a family business, this is a legacy, and it’s something I feel is important to the community,” said Martine. “We’ve been getting a lot of airtime now, people all over the country are hearing about it. I want to elevate the fact that just like people need food for their bodies, children and people need books for the soul.”