The Head and the Hand, sometimes known as “Kensington’s nonprofit community bookstore,” hoped to celebrate its one-year anniversary on May 3, 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic altered their plans.
“The pandemic forced us to close our doors before we were even able to celebrate that milestone,” said Linda Gallant, one of the founders of The Head and the Hand, which is located in the Fireball Printing building at 2644-48 Coral St.
Instead, the organization welcomed a different kind of celebration in June when it received a $60,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a national foundation that invests in journalism and the arts. Going forward, it will use the money to expand already-existing services, including the virtual workshops that sprung up due to the pandemic.
“When we applied for the grant, it was pre-COVID, and we had in mind certain things that we were going to do,” said Claire Moncla, The Head and the Hand’s creative director. “Now that we’ve been awarded it, we definitely have been sort of ‘nose to grindstone’ trying to pivot and figure out what’s the best use of it that’s the most strategic and that is going to benefit the literary community at large.”
Some of these strategies include prose and poetry writing workshops through Zoom. The Head and The Hand expanded their virtual workshops in mid-March, knowing that they could not reach community members in person anymore.
Valerie Fox, a professor at Drexel University and a volunteer who led virtual poetry workshops with The Head and the Hand this spring, was both impressed by and thankful for The Head and the Hand’s enthusiasm towards the community during the pandemic.
In Fox’s workshops, which she runs with poet and author Lynn Levin, Fox likes to give people writing prompts and the necessary space to be individually creative with their work, she said.
“As far as the workshops go, I appreciate that they were trying to find a way to keep the energy going online,” Fox said. “You hear a lot of complaints like, ‘Oh, our meetings all have to be on Zoom.’ But it’s actually a really great thing for writers to be able to meet and meet up like this.”
According to Fox, some workshop participants struggled to participate on the digital forum, due to Wi-Fi or technology problems, but other people with busy schedules, people who have to take care of their children, and people who are unable to travel to the bookstore for other reasons, found it more accessible.
“My [virtual] workshops are better for some people, so I’m envisioning — after we can get back to normal — that some people will continue to stay in touch with these types of virtual communities,” Fox said.
Tracey Levine, a professor at Arcadia University, leads a virtual memoir writing workshop for the bookstore.
This spring, some of Levine’s workshop participants wrote about the changing city, emotions raised by recent protests against racism and police brutality, personal essays about attending a protest themselves, and feeling isolated in quarantine.
Levine, who has volunteered with The Head and the Hand since its starting days, said that the virtual workshops fostered a safe place for participants to talk about their emotions during the pandemic.
“A lot of students expressed that they really really looked forward to the workshops because it was something that got them out of thinking about the heaviness and the uncertainty of the world,” Levine said
The workshops are open to anyone, but participants tend to be from the Kensington and River Wards areas, Levine added.
For young children, The Head and the Hand’s workshops will operate a little differently this fall. Gallant, who has a three-year-old child, said she knows how hard it is to hold a young child’s attention over the screen. But she might have found a safe solution outdoors.
Actors from The Philly Goat Project will work with The Head and the Hand to conduct free, outdoor storytimes with baby goats. The group will act out a rendition of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” called the “Philly Goats Gruff,” a spin-off of the original fairy tale that will highlight aspects of Philadelphia. The Head and the Hand’s version was adapted by Philadelphia screenwriter Brett Robinson.
Gallant got the idea after she witnessed The Philly Goat Project perform “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” at one of the Free Library of Philadelphia branches before the pandemic.
“They brought the goats into the reading room that they have for kids, and the kids went bananas,” said Gallant about The Philly Goat Project’s show. “They pet the goats. They’re adorable.”
Karen Krivit, the director of The Philly Goat Project and one of the actors in the show, said that the group confirmed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that goats can’t spread coronavirus.
“We try to be very vigilant about COVID precautions, yet remain robustly open arms and welcoming with our programming,” Krivit added.
The first two performances will take place at Greensgrow Farms, located at 2501 E. Cumberland St., on Oct. 10 and at Sunflower Hill, located at 1725 N. 5th St., on Oct. 24.
“It really feels possible to do this wacky thing that we think families can still participate in while being safe,” Gallant said.
You can register for the “Philly Goats Gruff” shows on EventBrite or claim a spot in an upcoming virtual writing workshop at The Head and the Hand’s website. All events are free to the community unless the listing states otherwise.
Editors: Zari Tarzona, Siani Colón / Designer: Henry Savage
Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.
What did you think about this story? Send a note to email@example.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.