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Tioga bookstore a neighborhood hub

Hakim Hopkins says his life changed with a book. Now he's trying to change an entire community with a bookstore.

Black & Nobel has “become a light in the community.” (Bonnie Weller/Staff Photographer)
Black & Nobel has “become a light in the community.” (Bonnie Weller/Staff Photographer)Read more

Hakim Hopkins says his life changed with a book. Now he's trying to change an entire community with a bookstore.

Hopkins, who grew up in West Philadelphia and Atlantic City, was 15 and in juvenile detention when his mother gave him a copy of Native Son by Richard Wright, a literary classic about the downward spiral of Bigger Thomas, 20, who lived on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s.

"That book just took me out," Hopkins, 37, remembers. "I didn't know that a book could be that good. I became a book lover, and a thinker."

Today, Hopkins runs the Black & Nobel bookstore at Broad and Erie that in the year since it expanded to that spot has become a neighborhood hub.

You can't miss it. In this Tioga marketplace of take-out food, knock-off purses, and other discount wares, a huge black-and-gold banner announces: "Black & Nobel. We Ship to Prisons."

Standing under a purple umbrella, employee Nasir Jones, 36, staffs the music table, wiping his brow as hip-hop floats through the air. A young woman peruses the CDs, sold at reasonable "hood prices," Jones says proudly: one for $5, three for $10.

Two children walk by and sing, "Hi, Mr. Nasir." He breaks into a grin, showing his dimples.

Another table carries $5 books, mostly on urban travails, known in publishing as ghetto fiction.

For Hopkins - inside the bookstore, working the register, chatting with customers - the outdoor display pays homage to where his business started six years ago: on the street.

Hopkins says that although business is drying up for other independent bookstores, Black & Nobel's mix of services is adding to its bustle.

"It's not so much we sell books," he says. "We've become a light in the community."

Along with the fiction section, there's the "conscious" section, with books including Raw Law, "a hip-hop guide to law," and the New York Times best-seller The Secret. Going fast is The 48 Laws of Power, on the leadership styles of historical figures.

There's a stand of shea butter, natural soaps, and hand-dipped incense. There are movies, documentaries, and music CDs, including gospel and hip-hop, mostly from unsigned talents.

Store employees mentor independent authors, artists, and DJs on promoting and distributing their work.

Black & Nobel also sells wholesale to street vendors and other stores.

"It's not competition here," says manager Tyson Gravity, 34, his long hair a tangle of dreadlocks. "We're trying to form a network so Philadelphia businesses can become more powerful as a whole."

Hopkins, an avid reader, started selling books on the street - he sometimes was hassled for not having a business license - back when the urban-fiction genre had few authors.

On Erie Avenue near Broad, "Aunt Brenda," a flower-shop owner, allowed him and his partner, Joseph Mitchell, to set up in front of her store. In return, Hopkins recalls, "I just had to deliver funeral flowers on Saturdays."

Eventually, Hopkins moved into his own space. "Black & Nobel" has multiple meanings, he says. It plays off the chain Barnes & Noble. And it represents his pride in a black-owned business with the cachet of "Nobel," as in the Nobel Prize.

But, he says, "the hip-hop brings them in." After the music outside lures people into the store, Hopkins gives out a promotional mixed tape with each book sale. "There's a method to my madness. We're merging everything all together. Now it's cool to hang out in the bookstore."

Sitting on a chair by a stack of books, James Burnett, 80, searches for a good read. With time on his hands, the Army veteran says he likes reading about the things he no longer can do.

In the children's section, Cynthia Harvey of Northeast Philadelphia watches her daughter, Kimory, a first grader, flip through a comic. "Slowly," Harvey instructs as her seventh-grade son, Sean, looks for adventure books.

At the counter, Hopkins rings up Danisha Singleton, 20, who buys three books, Rich Girls, Baptism by Fire, and Connected, to send to her father in prison, 120 miles away. The total is $26, including delivery. It's her second care package in a month.

"He reads them real fast," says Singleton, a junior at Philadelphia Community College. "It's helping him keep up with outside. When he was out on the street, he didn't read at all."

Hopkins says the store ships more than 100 books a week to prisons.

Another regular buys magazines for her girlfriend in prison.

"People think of prison and they think of men in a cell," Hopkins says. "But there's a lot of women and children in there, and it's good to send them something positive."

Every Friday, there's a book signing: Recently it was best-selling author and Philadelphia native Teri Woods, who signed copies of Alibi, a murder mystery.

On Saturdays, the store hosts a reading program for babies and toddlers. And hip-hop artists stop by - last week Raekwon the Chef from the Wu-Tang Clan was there to shoot a music video.

Eventually, Hopkins says, he wants to start a reentry program for ex-offenders.

For now, "we're a big small business," he says. "We're a family, and it's just us."

The next customer in a growing line buys The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner, and a "survival guide" to Child Protective Services and the Juvenile Justice System.

"We all need to take heed with what's going on with that," Hopkins tells him.

The next customer is looking for Machiavelli's The Prince.

"I feel like books is something I can do forever," Hopkins says. "There's always a new one, and people are always looking for information."