A woman looking for Kwanzaa supplies at Hakim’s Bookstore playfully chides Christopher Arnold, 31, that she’s been celebrating the African American cultural holiday longer than the store employee has been alive.
At the cash register, another customer asks Hakim’s owner, Yvonne Blake, if an employee named Glenda still works there.
“She’s still here. She’s like my sister. She worked for my dad since she was 16 years old,” responds a delighted Blake, 68, who has run the West Philadelphia store since the death of her father, Dawud Hakim, in 1997.
At Hakim’s, 210 S. 52nd St., roots in the black community run deep, and promoting its culture is the stock in trade. The store doesn’t sell coffee, but you can buy Barack and Michelle mugs. There are no comfy couches to crash on, but there are books and Afrocentric artifacts that can’t be found at bigger chain bookstores.
Filling that niche has kept Hakim’s alive since 1959, making it Philadelphia’s first and oldest African American bookstore.
As the store prepares to begin its 61st year, Blake is optimistic that loyal customers will keep coming back and new ones will find the store via an ever-expanding social media presence, thanks to Arnold.
“I don’t really try to compete with Amazon, because our customer base is pretty steady as far as knowing that this has always been a store where you can get books that you can’t get in mainstream bookstores,” Blake said during a lull in foot traffic.
“I have had customers tell me they can get a certain book … on Amazon, but they would rather support Hakim’s Bookstore.”
Customers regularly post reviews to social media sites attesting to their support of the store. “I’m a teacher, and I found several new titles for my classroom — wish I could buy more. If it’s black history or black cultural studies you’re looking for, try here first,” wrote Aaron Bos-Wahl.
“So happy that this bookstore is still thriving! Great selections and the staff treats everyone like family. Be sure to support this gem. I sure will,” wrote Aishah Coley.
Blake said she’s heartened by feedback from customers who tell her they still want books from stores like hers despite the growing popularity of digital devices.
“We don’t just sell books here,” she said. “We try to relate to our customers. We offer what education we can. We try to make people feel comfortable here, and share their ideas and take their suggestions. We try to be a part of the community, and stress that we’re trying to educate people so they will know who we are.”
That philosophy drove her father to begin selling books from the trunk of his car before he was able to open the store in the late 1950s. By the late ‘60s, the store’s stature had grown to the point that it was among a group of black-owned bookstores that the FBI regularly surveilled as part of then-Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program.
“They used to stand across the street and take pictures of the store because they were trying to make a tie to subversive groups. So, my dad didn’t have an easy way going when he opened this bookstore,” said Blake, who added that her father’s goal of educating customers continues.
“We try to stress the importance of having self-pride and educating ourselves and our children, because it’s not being done for us. And in the climate that we’re in right now, I feel this is really important.”