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.
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 in Philadelphia.
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.
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