The scent of African black soap and oils wafts out the doors of Black and Nobel, welcoming visitors climbing the steps to the bookstore.
Located on Erie Avenue near Broad Street, Black and Nobel specializes in African-American literature and culture and sells religious texts, literary classics and modern and classic poetry.
The store opened when Hakim Hopkins started selling books as a street vendor in 2004. After hitting a rough patch in his life, Hopkins used books as a resource and decided he wanted to sell them to others.
He enrolled in a Temple program that helped him attain a vendor’s license.
“It helped rebuild me,” Hopkins said.
But one of the hardest sells, Hopkins said, is a book sell.
Hopkins describes the community around Black and Nobel as a troubled one that struggles with crime. But the bookstore, he said, acts as a literary and cultural haven for those around the neighborhood, offering access to everything from Shakespearean classics to books published by local authors.
Black and Nobel also ships books to prisons. Hopkins said he sees it as a way to help the community and show that no matter what someone has done, they always deserve the chance to educate themselves.
The store began shipping to prisons in 2005 as a way to bring families back together.
“There was a need for it, crimes are at an all time high,” Hopkins said. “Although people committed crimes, they still had families, they had children and parents, they had cousins, and nieces and nephews. People came here … to ship out to their loved ones.”
“Because everyone is entitled to mistakes and most people in there are convicted of drug crimes, and when you are alone in prison you have no distraction. It’s you and the books, people gained knowledge of self through books,” Hopkins added. “It can change your life.”
A variety of books are shipped to incarcerated individuals, Hopkins said, from spirituality to self-improvement to cookbooks. Black and Nobel ships nationally, but most of the time, books are ordered by local city jails.
Hopkins wanted to turn people who are not drawn to reading into avid readers. He said he is touched whenever a customer who seems reluctant the first time comes back fully ready to read.
Hopkins thinks his success in pushing people to become avid readers has allowed Black and Nobel to flourish while other local bookstores have not been so lucky.
Abu Halima, a customer who lives near the bookstore, often brings his daughter into the shop. He said Black and Nobel is “a great place to show our cultural background in a time where our culture is represented in such a negative way.”
“It is necessary for people to have literature that they relate to and work their imagination since childhood by having parents read to them at bedtime, or them reading on their own,” Hopkins said.
“It gives a voice to the voiceless,” customer Aliyah Um Mahmoud, 39, said. “It carries books and music from the people who live around the area. The people around here can relate to those books. My child can relate to these books. No other mainstream books can show you the experiences of those who live in the situation that North Philly is in right now like the books written by those in and from North Philly.”
Ayah Alkhars can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.