It was late, and I was watching the closing spectacle of the Republican National Convention when a friend texted me the disturbing news: Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books had been broken into again.
That made me turn off the TV and run into my office. This was the third time this summer that the beloved bookstore/coffee shop run by Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill had been vandalized. I reached out to Hill, who texted back a photo showing a large glass window in the front of his business that had been destroyed. Broken glass was everywhere. That same window had just been replaced earlier this week.
It’s been that kind of summer.
Vandals targeted the operation for the first time on July 26. Hill remembers the date because he had just recovered from COVID-19. Then it happened again several days later. This latest incident took place Thursday.
“It’s funny, because the police told us that they had someone in custody, someone who had done a string of commercial robberies and we were one of them,” Hill told me. “That’s what they told us, and that was Tuesday.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he added.
Located in the 5400 block of Germantown Avenue, Uncle Bobbie’s opened in 2017 and quickly became a popular gathering spot for bibliophiles interested in Hill’s personally curated selection, and area residents who wanted food and a place to relax.
For Hill, who rose to national prominence as a media commentator on Fox News and CNN, establishing Uncle Bobbie’s was more about creating a community center to have intellectual discussions and less about making money. That’s why the fact that it keeps getting targeted the way it has stings so much.
“I saw the footage. It was two young guys who smashed the window with a brick, ran in and cut themselves, and didn’t really know what they were doing,” Hill recalled of the first break-in. “They grabbed the iPad that we had. There was nothing really in the register.
“The second time, they broke the glass [window] but didn’t get in because a neighbor saw … and they ran. And this time, I don’t know what happened. I’m in New York,” said Hill, who was preparing to host a BET special on Friday’s March on Washington commemorating the 57th anniversary of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Despite it all, he’s not a lock-them-up kind of guy.
“Whatever the person needed or needs, I would have done anything and everything to meet those needs. I’m the last person you’ve got to break in and steal from,” Hill said. “We’re out here feeding the community, educating the community. Me, Wallo [Wallace Peebles] and [rapper] Bahmadia just gave away food on Saturday. We’re doing all we can to meet people’s needs. I don’t want anyone to get harmed in the community, but it’s just so disappointing that it seems like those of us sometimes who are doing the most for the vulnerable are getting harmed the most.
“But I don’t feel like woe-is-me or anything. I’m happy to be in Germantown. I’m happy to be doing what we’re doing,” he added. “We’re not going to back down from this challenge, but I’ve got to tell you, it wears on your spirit.”
Hill really needs security gates.
“We were told initially that we couldn’t put security gates up because we are in a historic district,” he explained. “After being robbed three times in a month, I would hope that we can get some kind of a variance.… We can do something to make them look OK. But what we can’t do is to be expected as a business to stay open while getting our windows broken.”
There’s only so much that even a community-oriented business like Uncle Bobbie’s can take.