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Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books opens in Philly

By Jehron Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Dec 19, 2017 - 2:48:20 PM

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PHILADELPHIA—According to the American Booksellers Association there has been a resurgence in independent bookstores in recent years. However, this growth hasn’t necessarily included Black-owned bookstores.


Between 2002 and 2012, two-thirds of Black-owned bookstores closed. And of the remaining 400 Black bookstores more than half closed in 2013 and 2014, according to statistics compiled by Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club. By the end of January of 2016 only 67 Black-owned bookstores remained.

But with the opening in Philadelphia’s Germantown section of Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books, that downward trend may be changing. Part library, part coffee shop, part eatery, part living room, the inviting space encourages customers to hang around and soak in the culturally rich and intellectually stimulating atmosphere.

Since Philly has been labeled as a “big small town,” it’s almost impossible to spend time at Uncle Bobbie’s, fast becoming the new Philly meet up spot, without bumping into new and old acquaintances.  

The owner, Marc Lamont Hill, during an interview with The Final Call, said, “Hopefully it’s a home for folks. It’s a cafe. It’s a bookstore. It’s a meeting place (and) hopefully it’s a place where people can connect, be inspired and bring some energy.”

The store was “birthed by Black bookstores, (or the lack there of)” Mr. Hill said. “It started with my uncle Bobbie, my father’s brother,” he explained.

Marc Lamont Hill at his new café and bookstore Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Philadelphia. Photo: Jehron Muhammad
Born in 1917, his uncle didn’t have the opportunity to receive the education his nephew received. Mr. Hill, a journalist, author, activist, television personality, political commentator and professor of media and urban studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, said what his uncle did have was a voracious appetite for books. 

“He read everything he could find,” he said. “He read books, he read magazines. He joined movements and he taught himself. And when we were old enough to come to his house, he taught us,” Mr. Hill said.

“Going to Uncle Bobbie’s house was the place where I saw Black books, Black authors, Black magazines … I saw Ebony; I saw Jet; I saw Black Enterprise (and) I saw The Final Call,” he reflected. In addition, he remembered Rev. Jesse Jackson’s face being on his uncle’s bathroom calendar. He also remembered Dr. Martin Luther King being on his wall. “It was Blackness in every way and it taught me and instilled in me a certain kind of investment, in the belief and capacity of Black people as producers of knowledge,” Mr. Hill said.

Eventually the young entrepreneur caught the Black book bug. So instead of uncle Bobbie’s home, he frequented bookstores including Hakim’s Books on 52nd St. and Basic Black Books in the Gallery Mall in center city.

“Those books changed my life. I got introduced to the new publishing houses, new traditions of knowledge. It was like having a dual degree. You get your stuff at school and then you go to these bookstores. You get something else,” Mr. Hill said.

He said he hopes the new bookstore will respond to what the community wants and needs. “I put in books that I thought mattered,” like ‘Capitalism & Slavery’ by Eric Williams.”  He also said he’s booking events at the location next door he feels matter to the community.

In early December at the next door location, which seats 75, Uncle Bobbie’s sponsored the documentary, “Chasing The Trane,” about jazz musician, John Coltrane, to an overflow crowd. 

Upcoming events include a discussion about author and social critic, James Baldwin, and on Jan. 6 at 4 p.m., a book signing and talk by Nation of Islam International Representative Abdul Akbar Muhammad.

Each Friday at Uncle Bobbie’s there will be a film showing, including a series of films by director Spike Lee. Each showing will be followed by a discussion.  All film showings are free and open to the public. When asked why he chose the Germantown area of the city for Uncle Bobbie’s, Mr. Hill was direct in his response.

“Because Germantown needed it,” he said. Mr. Hill also lives in Germantown and his daughter goes to school nearby. “Why not build in your own community?” he added.

“Often the nice stuff, the nice coffee bar, nice bookstore is not ours. So, I wanted to invest in us. And I really believe we will support it. If you build it, people will come.”

Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books is located at 5445 Germantown Ave. Film showings and events are located next door at 5443 Germantown Ave.