Publication: Philadelphia Neighborhoods (Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University)
Published: March 12, 2009
Nicetown-Tioga: Turning a New Page
By Brian Myszkowski (with contributions by Laura Yacoe and Lauren Pappas)
The bookstores of the Tioga and Nicetown community are much more than stacks of literature and textbooks. They serve as a forum for the community and an educational outlet for the people of the neighborhood.
When customers walk up to the poster-clad staircase of Black and Nobel Bookstore, the employees and owner Hakim Hopkins immediately welcome them with smiles and hearty handshakes. It seems as if Hopkins knows just about every customer on a personal basis.
Beats from a local rapper boom from the speakers and bounce off the book-lined walls as customers read urban literature and browse the collection of music. “We draw ‘em in by simply playing the music,” said Hopkins, “It may be something like just hearing one beat, if you get somebody to do that, the next thing you know they’re walking up the steps.”
But customers find much more than hip-hop beats and reggae tones. The constant excitement of the 1409 W. Erie Ave. business has grown into a Philadelphia hot spot. The bookstore regularly hosts signings and celebrity appearances to keep the customers coming. On most Fridays, the store offers free food to the customers.
The majority of customers are regulars, and they feel a strong connection to the store and its employees. “These people are like
family to me,” said Chantelle Clark, a frequent visitor. The constant crowds promise a successful future for the business.
Considering the humble beginnings of Black and Nobel, the origin of the store serves as inspiration for other budding businesses – businesses that could play a similar role in improving the neighborhood. The spacious second-floor bookstore first opened as a vendor’s table on the street six years ago, thanks to the help of the “New Choices, New Options” program that Hopkins attended at Temple University. It has since flourished in a growing company, including a wholesale distribution department, as well as a program to ship books
Bookstores are a rarity in the neighborhood, but the ones that exist are well aware of their importance and positive impact on the community. Al-Furqan Bookstore and Bazaar is another bookstore that has used its reputation to promote literacy combined with religion. Located at 4816 N. Broad St., Al-Furqan primarily focuses on Islamic and African-American literature as well as clothing, home decorations, and organic soaps and oils. Customers are warmly greeted with the traditional Muslim greeting assalamu alaikum and the smell of oils and colorful khimars draped on the walls.
“We provide a positive image in this environment,” said owner, Khalil Ghani. Ghani and his wife, Haji Khalil Ghani, opened in 1995 as a bookstore and have expanded into a clothing boutique since then.
Ghani attributes his success of his business to the upkeep of his store. By keeping the store in good shape, he believes, there will be a positive impact on the rest of the neighborhood. By improving the visual aspect of the community, there is an improvement in the quality of life for the residents. “I was the only one for awhile to go outside and sweep up the trash, but it’s important to keep doing that,” said Ghani.
Al-Furqan and Black and Nobel provide employment opportunities for people in the neighborhood – a welcoming prospect during these tough economic times.
Both bookstores regularly receive shipments of new books and other products, and Ghani hires on a need-basis to restock. “When you involve the people, they feel a greater association to the environment. They’ll look out for you, protect you,” said Ghani.
Both businesses have reached out to local youth to create a learning environment with their collections of children’s novels and music. Local elementary schools visit Al-Furqan for field trips. “Buses come in – just to shop – busloads of kids just to shop,” said Ghani.
The bookstores bring the community together and improve the safety and education of the neighborhood residents. Literature is in constant competition with the crime and drug problems. A few years ago, this particular area was rife with danger, including violence attributed to gang activity and drugs.
“Six years ago, people were openly selling drugs on the street, and you see a whole lot less of that now,” said Hopkins. Instead, more and more people are coming to these bookstores — positive environments that encourage education and unity, what Hopkins calls “a balance in life.”
Each store may appeal to a particular customer base, but both use their positive reputation as a way to reach out the community. Whether one is looking for a new urban fiction novel at Black and Nobel or a classic Muslim text at Al Furqan, a customer is bound to notice the beneficial impact of such establishments. By encouraging literacy, community and employment, both establishments are helping to improve the quality of life in the Allegheny, Tioga and Nicetown neighborhoods.
While one could attribute this movement to forward-thinking individuals like the Ghanis and Hopkins, it appears that the progress is a product of a joint effort.
“I can’t take all the credit, it’s thanks to the people,” said a modest Hopkins. With the Ghanis and Hopkins leading the way, the community has a lot to look forward to.