Today, global superstar Will Smith launched an international book tour from a small Black-owned bookstore in his hometown.
The memoir is titled “Will,” and the very first stop was a small bookstore on Girard Avenue in Fishtown: Harriett’s. About a hundred people waited for him to arrive, listening to a DJ spin old-school hip-hop on the sidewalk.
“It feels amazing to be here, where he grew up in his hometown. It’s only right to do it up like that,” said Joshua Rodriguez, who came down from New York for the opportunity to see one of his idols.
He dressed the part, as though he’d walked right off the set of Smith’s 1990s sitcom “The Prince of Bel Air”: a neon pink baseball hat cocked sideways, mismatched Air Jordan shoes, and a necktie over a t-shirt with a cartoon of Will Smith playing basketball.
“I’m very excited, you just don’t know,” he said. “The adrenaline right now.”
Rodriguez had a ticket to the Met on North Broad Street later that night, where Smith joined fellow rapper-turned-actor Queen Latifah for an onstage interview, “Will Smith: an Evening of Stories and Friends.” He came down early, in order to be at Harriett’s and maximize his visit to Philly.
Harriett’s is a Black-owned shop specializing in books by and about Black women, but for the next week the store will only carry one book.
“The only book for sale in our shop for the next few days is Will’s book,” said owner Jeannine A. Cook. “Our bookshop was only six weeks old when the pandemic hit. Right? For somebody like that to come in and make sure that a Black woman-owned bookshop is doing well and thriving, it means a whole lot to us.”
An entourage of five black SUVs pulled up outside the store. As everyone’s attention swung to the street, security guards opened the door for Smith who pushed through the crowd, dutifully taking selfies with fans and autographing vinyl records, CD cases, and sundry merchandise related to his 35-year career in music, television, and movies.
Once inside Harriett’s, the crowd remaining outside, he got to work signing copies of his book while broadcasting an interview on Instagram Live.
Cook presented him with a brick as a gift.
“Does this bring any memories to you?” she asked.
In his memoir, Smith recounts an incident when he was about 11 years old, when his father made him and his younger brother build a brick wall, with no help. They had to mix their own mortar and lay their own bricks to build what he remembered as a 16-feet-tall wall.
He said the project took about a year, and felt overwhelming.
“It was one of the lessons,” he said. “He said, ‘Don’t focus on the wall. Just focus on this one brick. Just lay one perfect brick. There is no wall.’”
In addition to his memoir, Smith has launched a series of videos on YouTube where he attempts to get in “the best shape of my life,” both physically (he reveals how his physique has deteriorated significantly since his jacked up “iRobot” days) and mentally.
Smith’s willingness to show his flaws and inadequacies has endeared him to Nyria Stuart-Thompson, of West Philadelphia, who came to the bookstore less to see Smith in the flesh than to get a copy of his book.
“Will’s being really vulnerable right now, with the book, with the YouTube channel, his social media, everything,” she said. “Will’s a big star, and him coming back home and me being like a few inches away from him: Wow, whatever. I got the book, y’all. I got the book. That’s what really mattered. I got the book.”
The crowd had dissipated a bit when Smith re-emerged from the bookstore, but the crush of fans wanting selfies and autographs had not abated. Back in his black SUV, he drove off into the night.
The whole event, lasting about two hours, was billed as a protest by the owner, Cook. She put some of her employees on the street holding signs among Smith’s fans: “This Is A Protest.”
“The word protest has been minimized. It has lost a way. A protest could be many things,” she said. “Why can’t a book launch be a protest? Why can’t me telling my story be a protest? It’s really about a protest of one: me walking my walk and doing things the way that I feel called to do them is my personal protest. That’s what Will has done with the book.”
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