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hakims-bookstore-portrait

Chris Arnold (left), Dawud Hakim's daughter and the bookstore's current owner Yvonne Blake (center), and Hakim's great-granddaughter Alanna Ramberan (right)

Credit: Kylie Cooper

After a significant decrease in business during the coronavirus pandemic, Hakim's Bookstore has seen a huge influx in orders due to Americans' desire to support Black-owned businesses and read anti-racist literature.

Hakim's Bookstore is the first and oldest African American bookstore on the East Coast, located in West Philadelphia. The business was founded in 1959 by Dawud Hakim, who created the store with the intent to educate people about Black history. 

By 2015, the store almost closed as Hakim’s daughter and the store's designated successor, Yvonne Blake, struggled to balance a full-time job, caring for an ailing parent, and maintaining her father’s legacy at the bookstore.

Chris Arnold, a Southwest Philadelphia native in his thirties, encouraged Blake to stay open that year. “Brother Chris,” as Blake lovingly calls him, has spent the past five years volunteering at the bookstore. With his help, Blake, now in her 60’s and retired, has kept her father’s dream alive. Arnold helps out every day the store is open — on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

After all non-essential businesses in Philadelphia were ordered to close on March 15 in an effort to curb the city's coronavirus outbreak, Hakim's Bookstore temporarily closed the following day. 

Blake was awarded grants from the Book Industry Charitable Foundation and the Philadelphia Merchants' Fund, but there was no incoming business except for an occasional mail order. As many longstanding independent stores such as People’s Books & Culture struggled to keep their doors open amid the pandemic's challenges, Blake said she wondered if her store could survive.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Hakim's Bookstore is located at 210 S 52nd St.

With the spike in demand for anti-racism resources from Black-owned bookstores as protests attract attention across the country, Blake’s own dining room has turned into a makeshift shipping center to mail out customer orders.  

Mailing envelopes, book-filled boxes, and printed orders have been scattered across the table for the last two weeks. Blake said there are at least 25 orders for the book “Stamped,” alongside numerous requests for books “White Fragility” and “The New Jim Crow,” sitting in her house.

Blake said that while it is encouraging to see white people start to acknowledge the country’s institutionalized racism, this positive change is long overdue.

“It shocks me that a man had to actually be murdered on live TV by a cop who showed no emotion for people to actually wake up,” Blake said. 

Growing up, Blake said she learned very little about Black history in school. Hakim’s Bookstore was founded to educate the public on Black people's real history, emphasizing the stories that are often omitted and ignored from school curriculums.

“This is what the murder of George Floyd brings to the forefront: the anger and the disappointment and the ridiculousness of rewriting history books and leaving things out,” Blake said.

The shop is known for its specialized book collection and the personal relationships its owners have cultivated with various generations of customers, Blake said.

Until recently, 95% of Hakim’s Bookstore customers were Black. 

Over the past year, however, the white population has steadily increased around the store as West Philadelphia becomes more and more gentrified, Blake said. She said she has seen an increase in the number of white clients that frequent the store as a result of the ever-changing community population.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Over the past year, the number of white clients that frequent the store has increased.

Hakim’s Bookstore has little interaction with any local universities, including Penn, Blake said, adding that she hopes the institution will build a stronger relationship with the store in light of recent events.

The Black Cultural Studies Collective, a group of Black graduate students across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who work to connect the Black Penn community and the Black Philadelphia neighborhood, has already started to build a relationship between the two groups.

When the semester abruptly turned to remote learning in mid-March due to the coronavirus, BCSC used its remaining programming money to purchase books for the group from Hakim’s Bookstore and Harriett’s Bookshop, the city’s oldest and newest Black-owned bookstores, respectively. 

BCSC collectively spent $650 to buy 35 books from the two bookshops, BCSC Co-Coordinator and Ph.D. candidate in English and Africana Studies Amber Rose Johnson said.

“Hakim’s is right in my backyard in West Philadelphia,” Johnson said. “As a Black book reader, I feel responsible to help support this important business.”

As the bookstore’s dedicated volunteer, Arnold continuously focuses on new ways to engage the community. He said he was stunned to learn that in his 25 years as a Black man in Philadelphia he had never heard of Hakim’s Bookstore until 2015 ⁠— when he came across an article that said the historic shop was on the brink of closure. 

Over the past five years, Arnold has developed a strong relationship with Blake, and has added a youthful imprint on the store.

“I’m that pain in the butt grandson that thinks that his perspective is the freshest or the newest and thinks that he has the solutions for the time,” Arnold said, describing his multi-hour debates and email exchanges with Blake.

While the bookstore hopes to improve the youths’ awareness of African American history, Hakim’s continues its mission to educate everyone, including the prison population. 

After realizing Black people were arrested at higher rates than white Americans, Hakim's began shipping books to prisons in the 1960s, a program that quickly became popular. A 2018 policy implemented by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, however, has made it increasingly difficult for prisoners to purchase books as it bans books being sent into federal facilities from outside sources. 

“The prison system wants African Americans to remain uneducated so that they can keep them in prison,” Blake said.

As the issues of mass incarceration and police brutality have recently been brought to public attention after the death of George Floyd, Blake said she hopes that Americans continue to educate themselves on Black history.

“I’m still learning all the time and it annoys me every time I see the first African American this and the first African American that,” Blake said. “We shouldn’t still be having firsts in 2020.” She said she continues to learn every day herself, as she continues to see how little she was taught about her own African American heritage.

In response to the recent national outcry against police brutality, Arnold said he is not surprised. 

“Personally, going through it as an African American male in America, unfortunately, none of this is new to me,” Arnold said. 

He has chosen to exert most of his energy on ensuring the success of Hakim’s Bookstore.

“We’ve been in business for sixty-one years selling Black history that entire time and Black history is at an all-time high as far as day-to-day,” Arnold said. “I was able to be a part of a living time capsule while still adding to it.”

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