In August 2023, West Philly will have a new historical marker. Hakim’s Bookstore and Gift Shop, founded in 1959, is one of the oldest Black-owned bookstores in the nation. It has served as an important gathering place for Black activists, intellectuals, and information-seekers for more than six decades.
Hakim’s Bookstore is named for its original owner, Dawud Abdel Hakim, a Philadelphia native who was working for the post office when he read 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro. This 1934 publication by Black historian J.A. Rogers taught Hakim that Black people had been making contributions to world civilization and American society for centuries, something that he had never learned in school. Hakim became determined to share information about Black history, Black thought, and Black life with his community. He also had an interest in holistic health and natural nutrition, stocking books on these topics long before today’s “wellness” trend took off.
Initially selling books from the trunk of a car, Hakim opened his first shop, Hakim’s House of Knowledge Bookstore, on Walnut Street in 1959. At the time, bookstores catering to African American interests were virtually unknown. The store has been at its current location at 210 South 52nd Street through most of its history. Hakim, who had studied accounting at Temple and Cheyney universities, offered tax services along with Afrocentric gifts and a robust selection of books by and about Black people.
More than a shop owner, Hakim was a scholar, lecturer, teacher, author, publisher, and book wholesaler. Having become a Muslim in 1956 and completing a hajj to Mecca in the early 1970s, he was a reliable resource for people exploring Islam. He was also known for mentoring youth, helping the less fortunate, and supporting community activities. Hakim’s willingness to ship books to penitentiaries helped change many prisoners’ lives, and the store continues this practice today.
When Hakim died at age 65 in 1997, his daughter, Yvonne Blake, took over the store. She and other family members continue to run Hakim’s Bookstore and strive to keep her father’s legacy alive.
Hakim’s Through the Decades
Over the years, Hakim’s has been a consistent presence on 52nd Street, pursuing the founder’s mission of making a wide array of literature about Black life accessible to Philadelphia residents, especially those in West Philly. The store has, however, gone through a variety of phases during its long life.
In the 1960s, Hakim’s was a frequent gathering place for civil rights activists. Dr. Muhammad Ahmad (formerly Maxwell Stanford) credits Hakim with sparking his interest in Black history and Islam. Ahmad founded the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a Maoist, Black nationalist organization that operated, often covertly, from 1963 until 1969. Although RAM is not widely known today, Malcolm X was a secret member, and the group’s philosophy laid the groundwork for the Black Panther Party and for the radicalization of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Like other Black activists, Hakim was monitored by the FBI. Starting in the late 1950s, Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents working in COINTELPRO, a secret counter-intelligence program developed in 1956 to target communists, to turn their attention to civil rights groups. As the moderate wave of the civil rights movement gave way to the more militant Black Power ethos, COINTELPRO increased its surveillance and efforts to infiltrate groups it saw as a threat. In 1968, Hoover instructed agents to target Black-owned bookstores, explaining in a memo that such stores “represent propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture centers for extremism.” While Hakim and his patrons were being watched and photographed by the FBI in Philadelphia, similar bookstores across the country were also targeted, including the Baltimore bookstore owned by Paul Coates, father of contemporary author Ta-Nehesi Coates.
On a much lighter note, older Philadelphians will remember “Action Line,” a service of the Philadelphia Inquirer. One could call CO3-7000 or send a letter requesting help with any kind of challenge or issue. The “most interesting and helpful answers” would be published in the newspaper. In 1980, a pregnant woman requested assistance finding a list of African names. The Action Line referred her to Hakim’s Bookstore where she could purchase a copy of Arabic Names and Other African Names With Their Meanings written by Dawud Hakim. The book contained over 300 names and was available for $1.50 at the store. Problem solved.
In the late 1980s, Hakim’s West Philadelphia store was successful enough that he decided to open another Hakim’s in Atlanta, Georgia. Although the store closed when Hakim died, an employee of the shop, Nia Damali, went on to start her own bookstore. Medu Bookstore in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall is the largest Black-owned business in the city and appears to be thriving.
When controversy erupted around Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, Hakim refused to carry the book. He told the Philadelphia Daily News, “People know enough about the negative things about the religion. This would only enhance their negativity.” In contrast, in 1992 movie director Spike Lee released the film Malcolm X, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, some local bookstores sold out of copies. Hakim, however, told the reporter that he had been selling the Autobiography steadily for years and had plenty in stock.
Hakim’s, briefly, was featured in newspapers across the country. A 1996 Associated Press article about the spread of Islam among African Americans in urban communities started as follows: “Posters of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali adorn the walls at Hakim’s Bookstore, a West Philadelphia shop selling books on ‘The Blessed Women of Islam’ and greeting cards with ebony faces. On a recent afternoon, owner Dawud Hakim, a Black man whose store sits in a Black neighborhood, exchanged the customary Islamic greeting ‘As salaam alaikum,’ Arabic for peace by unto you’ with a customer wearing a ‘Property of Islam’ T-shirt. Behind the counter, Safia Muhammad, her face hidden by the traditional Muslim veil, took a call from her 15-year-old son, a top student at a mostly Black Islamic school.”
After providing this snapshot of activity at Hakim’s, the article goes on to explore the history, belief system, and reasons for the upswing in popularity of Islam among Black city-dwellers. It appeared in papers throughout the United States.
21st Century Challenges and Opportunities
Like most independent bookstores, Hakim’s struggled to adapt the world of huge chain stores, Amazon, and online shopping. By the end of 2014, the store’s sales were down, hours were cut, and Yvonne Blake was busy taking care of her elderly mother and struggling to keep her father’s legacy afloat. Blake told Karen E. Quinones Miller, writing for the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, “We can hope for a miracle, but unless one comes soon, the store will have to be closed permanently.”
Something of a miracle happened in the form of a December 2015 article in the Daily News. Journalist Helen Ubiñas implored readers to save the legendary bookstore. Response was immediate and vigorous. Community members volunteered to work at the store, an online fundraiser was initiated, and, most importantly, shoppers swarmed in, eager to spend money on books and gifts. People called and wrote to Blake from across the country, expressing their support and sharing memories of how Hakim’s Bookstore had influenced their personal and intellectual development. Even Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Philly hip hop group The Roots shared Ubiñas’ article on his social media, using the label #savehakims.
Blake was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support engendered by the article, but the close call also alerted her to the need to have the store keep up with the times. Hakim’s now has a website (with an online shop and donation portal) and maintains Facebook and Instagram accounts. The store also started holding events such as book signings and poetry readings.
2020: Pandemic Closures & Skyrocketing Sales
The 2020 COVID shutdown was a blow to the reinvigorated bookstore. Grant funding kept Hakim’s from going under, but Blake feared yet again that the store would not last. The Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd, some of which took place right outside of the store, however, catalyzed a fervid interest in topics related to racism, anti-racism, white supremacy, Black history, and the African American experience. Book orders were placed from across the nation and the world, and Hakim’s could hardly keep up with soaring demand.
Hakim’s garnered national attention again in 2021 when the store was chosen as one of four “Champion Black Business” by ESPN. A video about Hakim’s played during coverage of the NBA finals. Blake and another staff member had a virtual meeting with Daymond John of Shark Tank to get business advice, and local media highlighted the event.
A Well-Deserved Honor
Today, Hakim’s is preparing for a different sort of honor. On August 12, a state historical marker will be installed in front of the store that will read “Founded in the 1950s by Dawud Hakim, it was a center for Black activism, advocating the power of knowledge in the fight for racial justice. During the Civil Rights Movement, it provided the Black community with alternative education and titles by Black authors.” At the suggestion of the Enterprise Center, the historical marker application was initiated, prepared, and submitted by the University City Historical Society.
Hakim’s is only the second bookstore to be granted a historical marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. The first, installed in 2011, is for Giovanni’s Room, the oldest LGBTQ+ and feminist bookstore in the country. Giovanni’s Room opened 1973. Indeed, I was unable to find any Philadelphia bookstore still in operation close to as old as Hakim’s. A House of Our Own Books in University City opened in 1971, and South Street’s Garland of Letters opened in 1972. Book Trader in Old City, a used bookstore, started operations in 1975, and Wooden Shoe Books on South Street, specializing in anarchist and radical literature, opened its doors a year later.
Hakim’s is not only the oldest Black-owned bookstore on the entire East Coast, but it is the first and oldest Black-owned bookstore in Philadelphia, and, I believe, the oldest independent bookstore in the city. That Hakim’s is still operated by his daughter and grandchildren is even more remarkable. Quite impressive for a store that began with one man selling books from the trunk of his car.
Check Hakim Bookstore’s website for updates on the August 12 unveiling and celebration. The University City Historical Society is collecting funds to pay for the historical marker’s installation. Contribute here: https://uchs.wildapricot.org/Donate