Bookselling is difficult work, and given the challenges of pay, hours, physical labor, and customer service, a career in bookselling is not for everyone. But at Philadelphia’s Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, bookstore manager Evisa Gallman sees a long future for herself in her occupation. “Something that keeps coming up, that keeps recharging my batteries in this position, is knowing that you’re so valued,” she said. “It’s a completely different work experience, and quite a different relationship to a career.”
That Uncle Bobbie’s is valued is seen in the meteoric rise of the Black-owned indie bookstore. It opened in 2017 with a mission to provide readers a space where community, respect, and ideas are in constant conversation with one another. That vision was created by owner Marc Lamont Hill, who is also an author and a professor of media studies and urban education at nearby Temple University.
Hill is at his most excited when he is talking about books, and he credits his uncle Bobbie with giving him access to a huge home library and a passion for the social and intellectual importance of literature. It helped turn Hill into more than just a reader. Since his teens, he has been a bookseller, first selling books on outdoor tables on the streets of Philadelphia. Later, he managed two stores in Atlanta. All the while, he haunted every bookshop he could find.
But with each year that passed, Hill watched as many of the bookstores he loved disappeared. So did an ethic about the role of books in community building that he wanted to revive. He chose the city’s Germantown neighborhood to do it, believing that it is important for the predominantly Black neighborhood to have a Black-owned literary institution and café.
“My wildly ambitious dream for the store was that it would be a real community hub for Philadelphia,” Hill said. “What I didn’t anticipate—what I couldn’t anticipate—was that we would become a kind of national hub with just one store.”
Yet Uncle Bobbie’s has become just that. When the store had to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic, operations manager Justin Moore launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising $50,000; the store raised almost $100,000. When a break-in shuttered the store in August, Moore and Gallman promised customers they would reopen within a day; when they arrived the next morning, there was a line around the block that lasted until the store closed. And when the killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and a renewed reckoning with racial justice, orders flooded in from far outside Philadelphia.
“People from all over the country were calling Uncle Bobbie’s saying, ‘We need to learn. We need to understand race differently. What books can you recommend?’ ” Hill said. “There was a crisis. People wanted to look somewhere. And they thought we’d have the right answer.”
The store’s rise to prominence in such a short time is hardly accidental. The booksellers at Uncle Bobbie’s work to create a unique bookselling experience. For instance, the store contains sections that few other bookstores do—from Third World Revolutions to Africana—and even within conventional sections, the authors featured are not conventional. The philosophy section has more authors like Frantz Fanon, the late French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher, than Socrates. Gallman delights in stocking a book by bell hooks in the wellness section. And Moore regularly disappears into the children’s section to peruse a sea of books featuring characters that look like the readers who come in, including his young daughter. Gallman has an ability to source books that are not always carried by large publishers and distributors.
Hill relishes the chance to come up with thematic panel discussions that engage the community and doesn’t charge for events or require purchase of books. Each year, the store hosts a Martin Luther King Jr. symposium and a Malcolm X symposium, among others.
Hill’s commitment to keeping events free can be challenging—especially with high profile authors who want to read at the store—because publishers are growing accustomed to guaranteed book sales that come with ticketed events that include book purchases. Not charging can also affect the store’s bottom line.
The most powerful way Uncle Bobbie’s counters these challenges is by ensuring that customers feel like their continued engagement with the store is essential to maintaining its place as a cultural and intellectual hub. In the success of that message, Hill sees the affirmation of his original vision. He points to Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, which retails for $45 at the store, as an example. “You can buy it for half that price online, and people are still driving to Uncle Bobbie’s to get it,” he noted. “They’re intentional about how they spend their money and where they spend their money. You can get great lattes between University City, New Penn, and Uncle Bobbie’s, but people come here to get them. And it’s because of the kind of atmosphere we created. That’s the thing I’m most proud of—how invested people are in our doing what we do every day.”