Inside Black and Nobel, Philly’s still-thriving black-owned bookstore

Owner Hakim Hopkins, a self-avowed hustler, says business is still very good, but “I’ll always sell books, whether it’s slow or fast.”

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Hakim Hopkins wants to be clear: His place will always be a bookstore.

Black and Nobel, Hopkins’ shop at Broad and Erie, is weathering industry shifts. Brick-and-mortar black bookstores have become rarities, hit hard by online shopping and e-books. The African American Literature Book Club maintains a directory of black-owned bookstores, by state. Out of the three establishments listed for Pennsylvania, only two remain open: Hakim’s Bookstore and Gift Shop in West Philly, the oldest African American bookstore in the country, and Black and Nobel.

Hakim’s (Hopkins was named after its founder) is open part-time, four days a week. Black and Nobel — the second part of the name, commonly pronounced “Noble,” is really meant to sound like the estimable prize — is open seven days a week. However, books aren’t the only thing sold there.

Inside the store, shoppers can pick up DVDs, wooden sculptures, flags from countries throughout the Black Diaspora, clothing, smoothies and shea butter. The latter two are huge sellers; Black and Nobel manufactures its own sea moss drinks and products with plants imported from Caribbean islands like St. Lucia and Belize.

Health and wellness keeps us open,” said Hopkins, “but the books are a foundation — everybody knows us as ‘the bookstore.’”

Both are products not readily available anywhere else nearby. “You don’t see that in the hood,” he explained. He offered, for comparison’s sake, the idea of a sushi spot opening on the corridor. “If someone came to Erie Avenue and opened a sushi restaurant, the line would go all the way to the bus stop.

“Because we’re a bookstore, it’s a big deal for people,” he said. “I’ll always sell books, whether it’s slow or fast.”

In an article for Black Perspectives, the blog for the African American Intellectual History Society, University of Baltimore history professor Joshua Clark Davis evaluated the black bookstore as not simply a book retailer, but as a locus for Black Power.

African American booksellers were much more than small business owners,” Clark wrote. “In the late 1960s and 1970s, a successful black bookstore could bring together the campaigns for black politics, black arts, black studies, black community control, and black economic empowerment into the space of a single business. In so doing, these activist entrepreneurs realized Black Power’s goals for self-determination, and they helped to redefine what black businesses could and should be.”

Hopkins would concur with this argument, but he also thinks the digital age and political climate are changing the customer base. He pointed out that he doesn’t always know what color his online shoppers are. He set up a table at the Women’s March in DC, where he sold health products and tees.

I sold out of everything, and it wasn’t too many of us there, as far as black people,” he said. “People were buying black culture that weren’t black… I think we’re living in a different time. People are coming together more now than ever.”


Yep, you can still find CDs here, too.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Before you enter the bookstore, vendors greet you outside.


Mural-lined stairs take shoppers to the walk-up store.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Hopkins says online business is key. The store also maintains an active YouTube presence, where it has nearly 40,000 subscribers.


A man browses inside Black and Nobel.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Hopkins stocks books from mostly independent authors and publishers. He felt inspired to go into the business after voracious reading pulled him through a dark period in his life. He doesn’t like to get into what had happened back then: “I try not to go too deep into negativity.” After participating in a six-week career development program at Temple in 2004, he started vending books downtown and built up the business until he eventually opened a storefront in 2007.


The apparel section.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Before books, Hopkins wasn’t a stranger to vending. He had sold oils, tees and the like. “We come from that hustle mentality,” he explained. “Me and my team, we’ll be setting up at 9:30 to sell hot soup and products at the Gucci Mane show.”


Behind this table, Hopkins keeps stacks of paintings.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Hopkins said he wasn’t unnerved by industry trends. “I’m not bitter at all. I helped develop a lot of talent and artists,” he said. “I can’t be scared, I have to be sturdy.”


The Final Call is the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

He said the store’s evolution has been a natural one: “You don’t need to have a book everyday, but you do need to wash your body everyday, hopefully two or three times a day.”


Hopkins, listening intently to a customer.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Inside, it’s not unusual to hear Hopkins having long discussions with customers. The bookstore as a place to hang out and politic — Hopkins loves that. “It’s kind of dying breed, but we’re holding on to it,” he said. “So people can feel human and not nano, not technology. That’s where the world is going. That’s where the world is. We do a mix of both.”


Broad and Erie.

Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

The web domain redirects to Black and Nobel’s website. The store, thanks in part to its eye-grabbing signage, has become known for this service. In October 2015, Hopkins told Philly Voice that he was shipping 50 packages to prisons daily. He couldn’t put his finger on a figure when we checked with him. “Every week it varies,” he said.



Want some more? Explore other Neighborhoods stories.

Let the news come to you

Billy Penn’s free morning newsletter brings you the latest Philly news that everyone will be talking about in your Slack channel.

Nice to see you (instead of a paywall)

Billy Penn’s mission is to provide free, quality information to Philadelphians through our articles and daily newsletter. If you believe local journalism is key to a healthy community, join us!

Did you hear that?

That was the sound of you being informed after reading another BP article. If you believe local information should be free and accessible to all Philadelphians, will you support Billy Penn today?

Informing Philadelphians, one story at a time

Your generous donation brought this article to life. Become a sustaining member today to continue Billy Penn’s work.

Bring a friend into the Billy Penn-verse

Thanks for reading another story! Know a fellow Philadelphian that would appreciate BP? Tell them about our newsletter.