Let's save the city's landmark African-American bookstore

Yvonne Blake, proprietor of the the city's oldest African-American bookstore, is struggling to stay open.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: Hakim's Bookstore is still open.

That seems to be news to some people, including a man who did a double-take while walking by the landmark African-American bookstore and gift shop on 52nd Street below Walnut in West Philly. He thought the store - in operation more than 50 years - had closed or moved or maybe merged with another bookstore nearby.

"No, we're still here," said Yvonne Blake, daughter of the late owner, Dawud Hakim.

They are - but for how long depends on how much this city treasures its history.

True, the hours have been limited because until recently Blake, 64, was still working full time and because she cares for her elderly and ailing mom. Blake's also stuck in the vicious cycle of every struggling small business: No money to hire help = fewer business hours = even less money to hire someone to keep longer profit-making hours.

But Blake is trying to hold on. To a family business and a father's legacy.

Her father's interest in African-American books began after he read J.A. Rogers' 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to the World History of the Negro (1934) and The Five Negro Presidents: According to What White People Said They Were (1965).

"It was like a revolution in my mind," Hakim later told a reporter. "I had never known that a black man invented the sewing machine, that a black man invented the traffic light." After discovering the history that wasn't taught in schools, he said, he was determined to show his community its greatness through books about its contributions to science, arts and athletics.

He began selling books out of the trunk of his car, then in 1959 opened a store on Walnut Street above 52nd before a short stint on 60th and then a permanent move to the current location. He also opened a store in Atlanta that has since closed.

At the time, Blake said, it was unheard of to have a store that just carried books about African-American culture and heritage. Even more unusual for that bookstore to be a gathering spot to educate and empower a community through books and discussion.

"It wasn't until after my father died that I realized the full impact of what he did all those years and how many people he reached," Blake said.

Often people will remind her, like the day I was visiting when a man stopped by who was surprised the store was still open.

"He saved me," Robert Stanard said of Blake's father. "I was in prison and I was getting into a lot of trouble and they started allowing him to send books into the penitentiary. His books saved my life."

Before her father died of cancer in 1997, he asked his children to keep the store going as long as they could. For a while they were doing OK. But then loyal customers moved or died and technology changed people's buying habits. The disruptive 10-year Market-Frankford El reconstruction project didn't help.

And even with help from neighborhood economic-development organizations, Blake is still struggling to stay afloat. She gets steady business during Christmas: People come in for special books and gifts. But for several Christmases now, she's predicted that short of a steady influx of customers or a new owner, the shop that many believe is the oldest African-American bookstore in the country will have to close.

We've been here before, a beloved city bookstore on the cusp of closing its doors.

In 2014, I wrote about Walk a Crooked Mile Books, a used bookstore inside the historic Mount Airy train station that was slated to close after nearly 20 years.

I urged the community to get creative, maybe turn it into a member-owned co-op. I hoped someone would step up and save a store that went way beyond brick and mortar and represented history, community and generations of book lovers - much like Hakim's Bookstore.

Someone did. After reading about the impending closure in the Daily News, businessman Jake Sudderth stepped in, relocated the store and re-opened Mt. Airy Read & Eat on Germantown Avenue above Durham Street in East Mount Airy. Last month, he opened a second location in Roxborough.

Call me crazy, but I think we can do this again.

So, what do you say, Philly? Let's save another landmark bookstore. Let's keep an important city legacy alive.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

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