Uncle Bobbie’s opened to build community. Now that community is helping it reopen

Marc Lamont Hill’s Germantown coffee shop and bookstore, which was designed to build community in the largely Black neighborhood, is set to reopen after multiple break-ins.

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Justin Moore at Uncle Bobbie's Coffee and Books

Justin Moore is the general manager of Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Uncle Bobbie’s, the beloved coffee and book shop in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, will reopen Tuesday after a difficult road back through a public health crisis and multiple break-ins.

First, the shop shut down in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Philadelphia entered Gov. Tom Wolf’s yellow phase of reopening, allowing nonessential businesses to resume business, Uncle Bobbie’s did not.

“If you remember Gov. Wolf’s original plan, you had to be at 50 cases per 100,000 daily, that’s when you could open,” said General Manager Justin Moore. “Then they pushed up the timetable, despite the fact that the cases didn’t drop by that amount. We weren’t going to rush to reopen just because they told us we could. We didn’t feel comfortable. We have to consider our staff.”

Moore created a GoFundMe campaign, inviting customers to donate in support of the staff while they were unable to work. Money started coming in — one measure of how devoted the community has become since Temple University professor and author Marc Lamont Hill opened the shop in 2017 to serve as both a local business and cultural venture designed to build community in the largely Black neighborhood.

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“Uncle Bobbie’s isn’t just some cute, cool little coffee ‘n’ books nook on the avenue,” spoken word artist Ursula Rucker, who lives nearby, wrote in an email. “Uncle Bobbie’s does the real communal, collective people work! It’s a beacon of inclusiveness and community!”

Boarded up windows at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown
Two windows at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown were broken in two separate incidents. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The books are mostly written by Black authors and about the Black experience. The shop hosts regular author events and open community forums. The food is sourced from mostly local small businesses — and the coffee is good.

Like many businesses, Uncle Bobbie’s has leaned heavily on social media to stay in touch with customers while it has been closed. When Black Lives Matter protests ramped up at the end of May following the police killing of George Floyd, the shop’s Instagram followers nearly doubled to more than 50,000, according to Moore, while other Black-owned businesses in Philly also saw a boost in revenue.

Uncle Bobbie’s planned to open the following month on July 17. But shortly before that date, one staff member tested positive for COVID-19. The coffee and bookstore went into quarantine for two weeks, and the reopening date was pushed to Aug. 4.

Then, last week, just as Moore was gearing up to reopen, the shop was burglarized. Last Sunday, someone smashed a front window with a brick and robbed the store.

Then, three days later, it happened again: someone threw another brick through another window. This time, nothing was taken, but it caused a lot of damage.

“Relative to 2020, this is not that big a setback. It could have been worse,” said Moore, who does not know who vandalized his store or why. “Relative to what happened this year, if it’s not one thing it’s another.”

Support for Uncle Bobbie’s was swift. Moore said neighbors came to help clean up the broken glass. Some came to hand-deliver donations. Many more ordered books and made donations online.

“Incidents like this, although completely unfortunate, will never stop your vision or your cause. The power and significance of this shop’s presence and your continued work is crystal clear,” said Jovan Brown on Instagram. “Please name how we can support you.”

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Since the shop was vandalized, the GoFundMe campaign quickly shot past its $50,000 goal. As of Sunday afternoon, it was at more than $82,000.

“It’s funny how much a business that’s located nowhere near me resonates so much,” wrote Marisa3232 on Instagram, from Rhode Island, with a promise to order more books. “I am furious that someone keeps throwing a wrench in the works.”


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Tuesday is still the plan. TTYS. #UncleBobbies #WeStillHere

A post shared by Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books (@unclebobbies) on

The reopening date still stands at Aug. 4, but will be limited. People will be able to enter to order food and coffee, but must leave to consume it. Customers can browse the bookshelves and purchase, but must leave after they buy. The hours will be limited to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

Moore says he will gauge customer demand and the comfort of the staff before deciding to open the shop further.

Not allowing people to gather might put a damper on its goal of building community, but the community is showing up for Uncle Bobbie’s nevertheless.

“Next you’ll have to deal with a flood!” wrote Judy Michael on Twitter. “A flood of customers because we’re all coming in that first week!”

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