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Anyabwile Love had planned to wait until spring to open Bailey Street Books. But when an earlier opportunity arose to launch his bookstore and community hub in Brewerytown, he took it, with no regrets.
Love, a professor at the Community College of Philadelphia and Philly native, has been running the bookshop since last October. As an instructor in CCP’s History and Black Studies departments, he has a sharp eye for vintage Black literature.
Collective, collaborative study is the grounding ethos of his vision for Bailey Street.
The idea to launch a bookstore came to him about two years ago, after finding some Instagram success selling classic Black books, toys, and memorabilia. Seeking out a physical space was also a practical decision spurred by a change of residence.
“My wife and I recently moved, and we moved to a smaller place, so I was like ‘What am I going to do with all these books?'” Love said. Even after a couple rounds of giving books away to friends and students, there was still a surplus, and he didn’t want to put them into storage.
Among the friends Love asked for ideas was Brewerytown Beats owner Maxwell Ochester, whom he knew from visits to the store and because their children went to school together. “He was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you consider coming here?'”
Just like that, Love was in business. He set up at the front of the record shop at 1517 N. Bailey St. He arranged a sectional couch, table and chairs around one bookshelf holding titles for sale, and a second with works for patrons and friends to read freely onsite, whether for fun, research, or discussion.
“I didn’t want them to be on my [sale] shelf,” Love said, “or someone could come in and pay $400 for a rare book of poetry from, say, Third World Press.” Sure, he valued his collection of rare literature, but thinking about selling the tomes, he would always return to the same question: “What if we had it, so that other folks could have access to it?”
The importance of community access comes in part from his familiarity with libraries, as public libraries were an important space for him and his siblings when they were coming up. Engaging with Black literature and independent publishing from the Civil Rights and Black Power eras was also a stepping stone, as a child of the 1970s.
When growing with those works, Love said, “you start learning about the history of Black bookstores, independent Black stores and the people behind them, and how these were spaces for organizing and spaces for refuge.”
Events for the community, and plans for expansion
Right now, the plan is to stay inside Brewerytown Beats for “nine months to a year,” and then expand to a small retail space in the neighborhood. Until then, Love is excited to keep ramping up Bailey Street’s programming.
This month, the shop is doing three events he’s been looking forward to.
“I’m working with the Black Letter Writers Society,” Love said, “which is a great organization that’s encouraging Black folk not to divest from technology, but to circumvent it through the very tactile, organic process of letter writing.”
After a launch on Feb. 5, there will be another event on Feb. 13, also known as Black Love Day, where participants can write love letters “across time in space” to those they cherish. On Feb. 26, Shesheena A. Bray, a wellness practitioner, will facilitate a second letter-writing session focused on Black wellness and mindfulness.
Author talks are also in the works, including a visit from writer Richard Hamilton, who will discuss his book of poetry “Rest of US,” which was published by Recenter Press, a Philly-based publishing house.
“One of the other things that I’m really working on is growing our vintage Black children’s books,” said Love, with an eye on starting to read these books to and with kids.
Along with programming, Love is enthusiastic about making Bailey Street a place where Philadelphians can encounter and share new ideas — even if they’re found in books from back in the day.
With rare pamphlets from Philadelphia poets in the community section and a comic book loan program already started up, Love is looking forward to sharing rare materials outside of the ivory tower:
“Not everybody has a college library card, where they can go to Penn or Temple and see these things. So some of those things we just have right here.”
Black History Month books
Asked to suggest authors for people who want to read work by Black writers this month and going forward, Love dipped into the canon — naming Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler. He also recommended exploring the work of Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson.
He’s already been having these kinds of conversations at Bailey Street.
“I’ve been really working to introduce folks to the African Writer Series,” he said. “So, like, the works of Achebe — and everyone knows Achebe, but also Armah, Soyinka, and these other cats.”
The role Black history plays in Love’s life and work is clear, but its importance isn’t born of nostalgia. History proper is a product of disciplinary boundaries and standards, he explained, which, while important and interesting, are not how we engage with the past on a human level. For that, we have memories.
“Some people say you can’t move forward unless you know your history, but it’s that memory, right? And so much of our memory exists within literature, within books, within ephemera and things like that,” said Love.
Whether it’s celebrating the quotidian movements of Black communities through photo collections like Roy DeCarava’s “The Sweet Flypaper of Life,” reading a fictional account of history like John Edgar Wideman’s “Philadelphia Fire,” or peeping Black Panther Emory Douglas’s artwork on the cover of an early Sonia Sanchez pamphlet, memories abound in the works that Bailey Street has to offer.
For Love, the message is clear. “There’s no future without memory.”