John bangs his aged Italian espresso pucker to make sure the previous customer’s coffee grounds are out — the beginning of his timeless ritual.
He twirls the pucker and fits it into his coffee grinder, letting a perfect mound of ground beans fall into his instrument. He gracefully jerks it out, placing a cup under the spout of his rusty espresso machine. He clicks it on and a low, rumbling noise takes over his Avril 50 shop for the next twenty seconds as dark, then tan, then lucid colored coffee rains down into the cup, exuding its unique scent.
That is why the first thing that hits you when you walk into Avril 50 is the rich aroma emanating from the pots of coffee with the day’s brewed offerings.
If you’re a coffee drinker, you go for the kettles with the handwritten labels that list the day’s offerings: “Vienna Roast”, “Italian Roast”, “Blueberry” and, of course, “Avril 50 Blend.”
If you’re a reader you go for the racks, neatly stacked with magazines and newspapers you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Danish architecture digests, French fashion magazines and Scandinavian literary journals sit side by side with the day’s issues of The Guardian and The New York Times.
If you’re a smoker and want to replenish your arsenal, you go for the top shelves, where the eclectic brands of cigarettes, tobacco, rolling papers and filters sit behind the counter.
And behind the counter is John Shahidi, the 1980 Wharton MBA graduate from Iran who has faithfully run the coffee, tea, chocolate, magazine, newspaper, postcard and tobacco shop for 33 years.
“This city had nothing like this,” says Shahidi, who customers can always expect to see sporting his thick, black-trimmed glasses and old school ties seven days a week at 3406 Sansom Street.
“Still no one has nothing like this in the city or the [Penn] campus,” says Shahidi, who prefers to keep his sentences curt and to the point. “Nowhere can you find this.”
This is John Shahidi’s timeless oasis and to understand Avril 50’s story, you have to understand John’s.
You couldn’t find the quirky shop until 1984 when Shahidi decided to open it while he was working toward his MBA at Penn. Before coming to the United States to get his master’s degree, Shahidi obtained a bachelor’s degree in accounting in Tehran and performed two years of mandatory military service in the Iranian military.
“I didn’t want to, but I had to!” Shahidi says laughing, his Middle-Eastern tanned cheeks expanding below his slick black hair. “I didn’t mind. It was a great experience. You get to know the life, how hardship is.”
After his military service Shahidi left Iran with his wife Shiva Vakili, who also received advanced degrees from Penn, to study together in the United States. They had plans to study in the West and eventually go back to their home country.
That all changed when the the Iranian Revolution started in 1979, three years after they arrived in the United States. The civil unrest that followed replaced a U.S.-supported, semi-absolute monarchy with an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy.
Shahidi hasn’t been back since.
“I have no interest [in going back],” says Shahidi, without going into much detail. “It’s a different country. I’ve lived here for about 40 years and over there for 25 years.”
During the revolution his family’s money transfers, which financed his education, were cut off. He had to get to work. He took classes during the day, had a part-time job in Penn’s linguistics department and managed the different businesses housed at Penn’s Houston Hall at night. That wasn’t enough for Shahidi, who runs on four hours of sleep and ten cups of coffee a day and “probably five or six [espresso] shots in between.”
In 1984, he rented an empty storefront he saw on Sansom Street and started Avril 50 — Shahidi was born in April, ‘avril’ in French and Persian, of 1950. Initially, the store had a sit-down cafe in the basement, run by two of his employees. He was ambitious enough to open an Avril 50 in Rittenhouse Square and another in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Shahidi was forced to close the latter two shops soon after, however. Several robberies and his wife’s assault at the Rittenhouse location were the culminating points for his decision. He also realized that the shop’s edgy concept wasn’t compatible in the older, conservative city suburbs. Managing his coursework while running the sit-down cafe at the basement of the Penn shop became too overwhelming, so he decided to close that part of the shop for good.
The Avril 50 that remained, the first floor storefront now tucked in between a college sports bar and a BBQ joint, has become John Shahidi’s timeless refuge in the United States.
“I don’t know. I call it oasis,” Shahidi says. “It takes you off of the wilderness out there, out of the real world that is chaos. You come here, relax, and go.”
Customers seem to feel the same way. Mauricio Gandara, a College senior from Mexico who frequents the store every couple of days, uses Avril 50 as an escape within campus. He first visited the shop in August 2015 to buy tobacco, but he has become one of Shahidi’s regulars ever since trying a cup of the Iranian’s signature Avril 50 Blend on that first visit.
“It’s like a nice break from campus, inside campus,” Gandara says. “It’s very different from any other place you go on campus at Penn.”
Perpetuating Avril 50’s business model and essence for 33 years has been Shahidi’s goal, yet his biggest challenge.
A declining print industry has affected the amount of newspapers he gets delivered to his shop every morning. Shahidi says he used to sell dailies from all over the country at one point. As newspapers struggle worldwide, the business owner has been forced to cope.
“All these slots, they used to be for newspapers,” says Shahidi, pointing at a dozen shelves across the counter that are now stocked with art magazines, some outdated.
Although the magazine industry has also been hit hard by the advent of the internet and a generation of young readers more prone to reading from their laptops and cellphones, Shahidi says that his eccentric magazines sell to a niche market that has survived.
“Most of the people that buy them, they’re mostly designers and artists,” says the Iranian, who also received a master’s in international relations from Penn. “You don’t see the detail of the stuff that is on a magazine on the screen of a computer.”
Even the change in the tobacco industry has made it increasingly hard for Shahidi to carry the variety of brands he used to sell before. He boasted selling more than 120 different brands from all over the world at one point.
Although Shahidi notes that living conditions in the city have changed for the better over the years, he yearns for the “little shops here and there” and is skeptical about the increased commercial activity around Penn’s campus.
Despite a changing economy, a transforming commercial landscape around Penn’s campus and the distinct preferences of new generations, Shahidi is committed to being the steward of a bygone generation.
“Why do you think I stay the same?” repeats Shahidi when asked. “Nothing is the same, so I stay the same. Because things are old, it doesn’t mean they’re bad... being outdated is not bad.”
He is proud his coffee has remained virtually unchanged over decades. Shahidi continues to use the same Italian espresso machines he has used for over 20 years, noting he has to get them repaired regularly. His signature secret ‘Avril 50’ coffee blend? The same.
“The Avril is one I blended myself here,” says Shahidi proudly. “It took me two years to come up with that blend that everybody loves. I have never seen anyone not like it.”
For Shahidi, it’s his customers who keep him going. He says he doesn’t have a favorite customer and strives to see each one for who they are as an individual, not “as a number like a lot of these store chains do.”
He sparks short conversations with the most frequent ones that come for their daily caffeine boost. The new ones he acknowledges with his unfaltering attention from behind the counter, which has an assortment of chocolates from around the world along with remaining copies of the first “Charlie Hebdo” issues printed following the terrorist attacks on its Paris headquarters last year.
His former customers keep returning to Avril 50 — which he also calls a time capsule — long after they leave Penn’s campus. Shahidi constantly greets Penn graduates who stop by the shop “to get the feeling of old youth” when they visit the University.
“It’s the same thing that they went through as students,” says Shahidi, who is proud of his ability to remember the cigarette brands his most loyal customers bought during their time at Penn. “The smell is even the same. It takes them back to their youth. I’ve seen three generations almost. I’ve seen sons and grandsons.”
It’s been 33 years since the Iranian opened his oasis, which he intends to continue running as long as he is still standing. Since then, wars and revolutions have come and gone, generations of Penn students have come and gone, businesses on Sansom Street have come and gone, but John Shahidi and Avril 50 have not gone.
“Nothing has changed,” Shahidi says. “Tea, magazines, coffee, tobacco.”