At Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books, a cafe, bookshop, and community meeting space in Germantown, there’s a catchy slogan printed on a bench stationed outside. It’s short and to the point: “Cool people. Dope books. Great coffee,” words that Marc Lamont Hill, the shop’s owner, says were chosen with intention. Cool people (a fan of Uncle Bobbie’s is a fan for life), dope books (by underrepresented voices on vital subjects), and great coffee — because selling coffee is a big part of what gets people through the door.
“We don’t want to be a place that people come to out of obligation or burden. ‘The coffee is shit, but I love Uncle Bobbie’s,’” Lamont Hill says. “We wanted to make a place where you actually like coming here. You’re going to get a great latte. You’re going to get an amazing slice of sweet potato pie. You’re going to be hand-sold a book. Those things matter.”
Uncle Bobbie’s is named for Lamont Hill’s uncle, who inspired his activism and interest in reading from a young age. The sign out front features an illustration of Bobbie, calling visitors into the cafe on Germantown Avenue like a beacon. “When you look at the aesthetics of the place, it’s a decidedly Black space,” Lamont Hill says. Inspired by Crimson Moon, a Black-owned coffee house on 20th and Sansom that closed after being priced out of downtown nearly 20 years ago, Lamont Hill wanted to emphasize that it’s possible to do coffee in a way that doesn’t look like an episode of Friends. “Our goal was to not make it less attractive to white people, but more attractive to Black people.”
By extension, Lamont Hill opened Uncle Bobbie’s in Germantown, a historically Black neighborhood in the Northwest part of the city, on purpose. “We could have put this in Chestnut Hill. We could have put this downtown,” Lamont Hill says. “We could have made it an it-spot for hipsters. But there was an idea here that this community deserves beauty. This community deserves care, and so we put it here so they would get that.”
Running the shop has come with its challenges. Since Uncle Bobbie’s opened in 2017, it has been burglarized a handful of times, most recently in March when Hill posted a disheartening Instagram of himself walking through the cafe in the early hours of the morning, taking stock of the damage. In the comments, Uncle Bobbie’s supporters suggested night security guards and internal gates to prevent another break-in from happening, despite the fact that they have always had an alarm system. “It goes off every single time this happens” Justin Moore, the shop’s general manager, says.
“Someone asked us on social media, what can we do to prevent [the burglaries]? We can deal with economic inequality and systemic racism,” Moore says. “Something made these people throw rocks through our windows to try to get money from a register at a bookstore. So why can’t we focus on that part?” Instead of dealing with gates and hiring security guards, Moore wants to try to address those issues first. In two of the times they’ve been burglarized, Lamont Hill says he eventually found out who did it.
“I went looking for them to have a conversation with them,” he says, adding that he did not participate in their subsequent prosecution. “Let me be very clear, I don’t pretend that this is easy. I begin all my work in restorative justice and abolition by asking the question, ‘What would the world look like if everyone’s needs were met?’” One of the people who had broken in came into the shop a month later to identify themselves and ask how they could make it right. “I don’t think that happens at Starbucks. Starbucks calls the police if you sit down too long.”
With Lamont Hill’s profile as a TV personality, author, and academic, a shop like his could succeed in bigger cities with more resources, but he stays in Germantown, and in Philly, because it’s a place “where culture thrives.” It’s a town of hustle and grind and the underdog, much like the bookshop that has dealt with some setbacks and kept going anyway. “Sometimes we like to do things the hard way.”
“This is the place that produced so much — the Patti LaBelles, the Marian Andersons, the Gamble and Huffs. There’s a certain kind of cultural energy here,” Lamont Hill says. “This is where John Coltrane came to grow. This is where Luther Vandross came when he was a teenager.” One of the oldest Black-owned bookstores in the country, Hakim’s, is right here in Philly on 52nd Street. “I don’t know if this energy, that push, that community support, that backdrop would have formed if we were in Delaware.”
Moore stops him. “Your mentions are about to be blowing up,” he jokes.
Lamont Hill is quick to add, “No disrespect to Delaware.”
But on the point about Philly, Moore — who is from New York originally — agrees. “One of the things I’ve noticed in Philly is that there’s a level of loyalty of the people here that I don’t think I’ve really experienced anywhere else.” You have to earn that loyalty, he says. You have to be authentic. “But when Philly loves you? That’s it, you’re in.”
Uncle Bobbie’s is located at 5445 Germantown Avenue. It’s open 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Sundays. Website.