“I look at books like people's spirits on paper, not just a story,” said Hakim Hopkins. “I think that they are alive.”
Hopkins, 47, is the founder of Black and Nobel, a bookstore that sells African-American literature and ships books to prison. Additionally, the store has grown to stock health products and other items.
For 15 years, Hopkins set up shop along the 1400 block of W. Erie Ave., but has since moved Black and Nobel to 410 South St. at The Vision Venue: The Pop Up Store, a collective space for different retailers. Hopkins explained that he plans to remain at this location and expand to other pop-up shop locations in the near future, including a spot in Baltimore on March 1.
“Wherever you plant your feet should be your home,” said Hopkins, an optimist at heart. “And that's how I look at it, just being able to go to other places and make an impact.”
The change in location came after an uphill battle in 2017, where Black and Nobel started a GoFundMe campaign for $250,000. The store raised close to $10,000, not enough to save the cultural hub which held lectures and open mics for the community. Yet, it was money that Hopkins was still able to put to good use.
Hopkins allocated the raised funds to create a mobile app, build a new website and publish a children’s book called The King of Mau: Rise of Mansa Musa, written by Ki’el Ebon Ibrahim, with Urbantoons. Hopkins then set off for Africa to promote the book, a life-changing experience for the bookseller.
As the doors closed on Hopkins’ shop and on a large chapter of his life, he couldn’t help but feel some relief. During the struggle to save the store at Broad and Erie, Hopkins lost his eldest son of six children. His son used to help run the bookstore’s technology department, which created a daily reminder for Hopkins that was hard to bear.
“I think that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to close the doors,” said Hopkins, his eyes welling with tears. “I didn't tell people. There would be people that would come into the shop and they would ask about him and they didn't know. So I would get all worked up … and I would tell them and their response would make me emotional.”
Hopkins appreciates the collaborative nature of his new space. Splitting the responsibility with other merchants has alleviated the mounting pressures Hopkins faced while running his own location.
Sitting in his section of the multi-vendor store, Hopkins is proud of what he was able to accomplish at the old store. A legacy that he is determined to continue, Hopkins is accustomed to working hard in different environments.
Before he sold his first book, Hopkins was going through “some changes” in his life. “Heartbroken” at the time, Hopkins enrolled in a six-week program at Temple University to get back on his feet. Hopkins recalled being the only male in the group but was “embraced” by his women peers, including a young woman named Venus who would bring him books to read.
“I was so amazed by the things that I was reading. I was locking myself in my room ... for eight hours reading until I was sleepy,” said Hopkins, remembering Dr. Francis Cress Welsing's The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors being the first book he received from Venus. “[The books] gave me a kingship feeling instead of a depressed feeling. In that, you read about slavery and these books were more about how royal African people are.”
Through the program, Hopkins acquired his vending license and by graduation he knew what he wanted to do with it: sell books. Without the funds for a store of his own, Hopkins made a deal with a florist, who he calls “Aunt Brenda,” to sell his books outside her shop in exchange for delivering her flowers to churches and funeral homes on Saturday.
“Oh, it was a beautiful journey. I would say a beautiful struggle. I started with a table, and one table led the two tables, two boxes led to four boxes of books,” Hopkins recalled. “I watched it grow book by book.”
Selling his books in sunshine, rain, snow, and sleet, Hopkins sold his books at the bus stop on Erie Ave. for three years. While content outside talking to the endless stream of coming and going riders, his eyes were set towards the nail salon across the street that would soon become his store.
It was also during his time outside that he would meet a woman named Kareema, who would plastic wrap the books in preparation of rain in return for reading material. Kareema would be the one to suggest that Hopkins send his books to the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford in Montgomery County.
Kareema helped initiate the niche business, already having prior knowledge of the market from knitting Muslim kufi caps that she would send to her husband to sell in the prison. But Hopkins ran with the concept, and “the idea turned into a movement.”
Hopkins said that sending his books to different prisons influenced many success stories where inmates became writers themselves. One of his book recipients was "Freeway" Rick Ross, the convicted drug trafficker, who created a drug empire in Los Angeles, California. During his life sentence, Ross learned how to read with the help of the books Hopkins sent to the Texarkana Federal Correctional Institution. After Ross’ sentence was shortened on appeal and he was released in 2009, he has since become a celebrated author.
Another formerly incarcerated person Hopkins would send books to was Wahida Clark, now an established publisher and known as the “Queen of Street Lit.” Clark served nine-and-a-half years in a women's federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, where she received business advice from her cellmate, personality Martha Stewart, which helped fuel her publishing company.
“Reading takes your mind somewhere else. You can be in prison in one little room, and you are flying into Africa reading a book,” Hopkins explained. “Books are amazing like that. They touch you in different ways. So books and prisons — it's many Malcolm X stories.”
Hopkins is in the process of curating the various stories that have stemmed from the original Black and Nobel location with the hopes of turning them into a book. Still passionate about making others excited about reading, Hopkins stamps each of his books in order to keep the store with them to wherever they may end up.
“[Books] travel. People don't just get rid of books. I stamp every book that I sell because books end up in all kinds of different places. People take books all the time, lend books, and so they have a whole life of themselves. It's not just for that person,” said Hopkins. “Once you become educated, you get so excited, you want other people to know.”