Marc Lamont Hill looks for support as bookstore closes amid COVID-19

Uncle Bobbie's Books and Coffee initiates a digital campaign to support its staff financially through the coronavirus pandemic.

Marc Lamont Hill attends the “The Leading Man” panel discussion during the 2014 American Black Film Festival at Metropolitan Pavilion on June 20, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Many Black-owned businesses are facing unforeseen circumstances as the coronavirus pandemic continues to make an unprecedented impact on the economy.

Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books, a Black-owned bookshop in Philadelphia which runs on the motto, “Cool People. Dope Books. Great Coffee,” is one of many forced to close their doors.

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“We’d be OK with closing and just opening [when this is over] but my employees won’t,” Uncle Bobbie’s owner and cultural commentator, Marc Lamont Hill, tells theGrio.

“The whole goal of the GoFundMe is to support the employees. I don’t want to function like a corporation. I want to function in a way the employees could count on me and their job.”

Photo: Google Maps

Although they are temporarily shutting down, the shop hopes to support their employees, vendors and business expenses with a digital fundraising campaign. #WeStillHere aims to keep the business financed while doors are shut, ensuring a comeback when society returns to a level of normalcy. 

Hill opened the business to create a safe space to foster community and creativity in his neighborhood through the love of books and literature. As an adolescent, Hill frequently visited his Uncle Bobbie’s house where he became exposed to the endless possibilities of a good read. Uncle Bobbie’s house became the place where Hill began his passion for books and he aims to provide that for others. 

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“One of the first places that I found books and the world of Black authors and Black writers was my uncle’s house. My father’s brother Bobbie. He had fought in World War II,” Hill tells theGrio.

“At Uncle Bobbie’s house, he had Ebony and Jet but also things like Black bourgeois (literature)  and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He introduced me to a whole world of books and ideas different than I got in school and it created my whole love affair with books.”  

With his current resources and access, Hill was able to bring this sacred space back to life at Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books. The unprecedented circumstances provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, however, have left the shop, like many small businesses, facing dire circumstances.

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Once COVID-19 reached the current level of universal panic, Hill and the staff of Uncle Bobbie’s saw a swift change in store traffic.

“We started to see fewer people come in. We had events where we expected 400 people and we got 150. It spiked very quickly. It went from alternative plans to we ‘closed closed.’ The city closed us we didn’t have the opportunity to make a different choice although we would have closed on our own. Things escalated so quickly.” says Hill. 

For Hill, the pandemic meant a financial emergency, not exclusive to his small business. Black business owners specifically face the potential of harsher consequences. “Oftentimes black business (are) operating with fewer resources, smaller margins, and a much more niche customer base. When you own a business and suddenly half the people stop coming in, now you have a payroll question,” Hill notes.

“Black folk are disproportionately vulnerable economically. Our customers are vulnerable so they cant support us the same way. When things like corona come unpredicted without proper resources, you can end up in a vicious cycle of debt.”

In this time of panic, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books decided to turn to the community they serve for financial resources as their doors remained close. A member of the team decided to launch the GoFundMe fundraising campaign.

READ MORE: Black-owned spin studio switches gears to serve community in crisis

Hill, who frequently donates to digital crowdsourcing said he’s never asked anyone to donate to anything on his behalf. For the author and activist, it came down to supporting his employees and setting a different business-standard. 

The campaign funds will provide financial support to the staff of Uncle Bobbie’s so they are not forced to panic and choose between their health and finding work to compensate for lost funds. Thus far, over 380 people have donated to Uncle Bobbie’s campaign from all over the country. Hill says the support from everyone is a wonderful feeling. 

“The support from the community and around the country has been overwhelming. I couldn’t be more humbled and grateful and overjoyed by the support from people who come to Uncle Bobbies every day and from people who have never been to Philadelphia….for me that means everything,” Hill says.

Hopefully, when society emerges on the other side, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books and all the small, Black businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic are able to return and thrive. Hill notes that in order businesses to succeed upon reopening, both state and federal assistance will be needed. Also, the consumers must put their money where their mouth is. 

 

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Yesterday was an incredible first day… Thank you to everyone that shared and donated‼️🙏🏾 • • • PLEASE DONATE IF YOU CAN Last week, Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books was forced to temporarily close our doors in response to the Coronavirus. As with many small businesses, this crisis has placed a tremendous strain on our entire organziation. Many of you have asked, “How can I help?” We’ve started a GoFundMe!!!! • GoFundMe.com/f/WeStillHere (link in bio) • Here’s how your generous donations will be prioritized: – Immediate relief to our staff – Paying our vendors (many of which are small businesses themselves) – Paying other expenses (rent, insurance, etc.) Because we don’t know how long we will remain closed, or if we will get support from our sources, we are setting an initial goal of $25,000. But we would love to double that goal!! • Any amount will be greatly appreciated. You all mean so much to The Uncle Bobbie’s Team. We promise to continue representing and serving you in the best way we can. #WeStillHere

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“Obviously we are going to need federal and state-level support. This is a historically unprecedented event. The same commitment they have to the big box retailers and banks needs to be made to small businesses. It’s so necessary,” Hill says.

“The other part is we have to make a concerted effort when we hit the streets again to spend black.” says hill. He continues “Whenever this shit is over people gonna be out in the streets everywhere. We have to make sure we stop in the black book store, the black coffee shop, the black restaurant, the black lemonade stands” 

The GoFundMe campaign for Uncle Bobbie’s Books and Coffee currently stands at over $19,000 raised of the $25,000 goal. For details on the campaign or to donate, click here. 

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