Last of Philly's black-owned bookstores looking for a comeback

At Hakim’s Bookstore in West Philadelphia, there are signs of life for what is believed to be the oldest black-owned bookstore in the country. Only a couple of years ago, the store was near death’s door.

There is fresh, yellow paint on the walls, brand-new bookshelves, and a newly renovated office space at the back of the store.

“I finally got a website about three months ago,” said Yvonne Blake, daughter of Dawud Hakim, who founded the store in 1959.

Two years ago, the landmark at 210 S. 52nd St. was in danger of closing: Competition from internet booksellers and its limited hours — a family member was ill — led many people to falsely believe that Hakim’s was no longer in business, Blake, 66, said.

But after attention from a column by Inquirer and Daily News writer Helen Ubiñas, Blake said, “I had a lot of people offer to help.”

She had already launched a GoFundMe campaign (more than $1,140 has been raised), but hearing from people all over the country gave her even more hope — and help. Joel Wilson, the owner of a computer-consulting firm who went to elementary school with her daughter, created the new website and offered a reorganization plan. And Ron Green, founder of a clothing company featuring T-shirts and other apparel aimed at young black activists, paid her a visit.

“I had never heard of Hakim’s,” said Green, CEO of What’s Up African? “I told her, you don’t have social media. You’re not online. You have to go to festivals and events. You have to be visible.”

And he advised her: “How can we expect the next generation of readers and leaders to access this store if they don’t know you exist?’

Now, some of Green’s T-shirts, items that appeal to a younger generation, are available at the bookstore.

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer
Yvonne Blake holds a photo of her father, Dawud Hakim, in front of the store in the 1970s.

Troy D. Johnson, president and founder of African American Literature Book Club, said only Marcus Books in Oakland, Calif., founded in 1960, has been around as long as Hakim’s.

Johnson also said he was pleased to learn that Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill just opened Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books at 5445 Germantown Ave.

Hill’s store, “along with the opening of at least seven new black-owned independents this year, is a very positive sign,” Johnson wrote in an email. This is the first year his website added more bookstores than it flagged as having closed. “As Amazon becomes a near-monopoly for online book sales and eBooks, they are certainly having an adverse impact on not just black independents, but all booksellers online and brick-and-mortar,” Johnson wrote.

Joshua Clark Davis, a professor of history at the University of Baltimore who has studied black-owned bookstores in the country, said that the “rise and fall of black radical politics has always had an impact on the popularity of black bookstores.”

The first big boom was during the height of the Black Power movement, from the late 1960s until the mid-’70s.  “Then came a big decline, but another upswing in black bookstores was when Afrocentrism and Malcolm X and black nationalism boom again in the late 1980s and early ’90s,” Davis wrote in an email.

Today, Davis points to the rise of Black Lives Matter activism and the growing criticism of mass incarceration —  illustrated in best sellers like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or Ta-Nehisi Coates’  Between the World and Me — as reason for a renewed interest in black bookstores.

The number of black-owned bookstores nationally peaked in the early 2000s at about 150, but by 2012 had dropped to about 50.  In 2017, the number rose to about 70, Davis said.

Black-owned Black & Nobel at 1409 W. Erie Ave. launched a GoFundMe page earlier this year when owner Hakim Hopkins thought he also might have to close his store, which, in addition to selling books acts as a hub for young rap artists and health product entrepreneurs. The campaign raised about $9,500, and Hopkins said he worked with UrbanToons Inc., to publish a new children’s graphic book called The King of Mali: Rise of Mansa Musa.

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer
Hakim Hopkins, owner of Black & Nobel, hopes to expand its delivery services with the introduction of a phone app.

“We’re still here,” said Hopkins.

While Black & Nobel is known for its huge “We Ship to Prisons” sign visible from Broad Street, a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the store may no longer ship to state prisons after contraband was found in one of its shipments. (Hopkins denies any wrongdoing, and claims someone used his store’s name to make the illegal shipments.) But Hopkins said he still can send books to county and federal prisons across the country.

And he said he is working to develop an app to provide a delivery service for merchants called “Black and Mobile.”

Many people confuse Hopkins’ store (because of his first name) with Hakim’s, but there is no connection.

On a recent December day, Blake pointed out new children’s books, Christmas cards, Bibles and Islamic literature and Korans for sale. And with Kwanzaa approaching, a weeklong celebration of African heritage and harvest traditions ending Jan. 1, there were candles, kinaras and mats on display, too.

It’s been a long time since the FBI used to take photographs of customers coming and going at the store in the late ’60s, when the government thought it was a source of extremist literature. Blake didn’t even know about that until her father’s death in 1997. To a visitor at the store, she read from the obituary his quote:

“Anybody who owns a bookstore should be considered an asset to the community and not a contributor to racial strife,” Hakim had said, “because books are here to inform people.”