Uncle Bobbie's Coffee and Books: An Interview with Marc Lamont Hill
Just a few days ago, while working and listening to a TED podcast, I came across an interview with Leah Chase, who is a 94 year old (quite humorous) advocate for African American art and Creole cooking. She talked about how her restaurant in New Orleans, during the civil rights era, was a safe haven and a gathering space for some of the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders who worked to eradicate White-only spaces. Leah said “We changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken”. Today, Marc Lamont Hill’s bookstore and coffee shop provides a similar space that contributes to increasing the number of black-owned bookstores and integrates a diverse community. Leah's restaurant and Marc's coffee shop are a testament to the third space theory. A third space is where creativity, collaboration, and meaningful conversations happen, its a symbiosis between home and work life. Whether its the 1960's civil rights movement or today's political turmoil, both spaces are a stamp to Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream to fighting injustice.
Marc Lamont Hill is a well-rounded writer, social justice activist, political contributor of various media outlets, and Uncle Bobbie's chief barista! From the interview I had with him you will discover how his great character and social activism, influenced by Uncle Bobby himself, are reflected in Uncle Bobbie's Coffee and Bookstore.
Not only does marc make good cofee, but he also speaks fluent arabic in a palestinian accent. So i asked him - how did you learn it?
I learned it through my travels and interactions with people, and wanted to learn it because of being a practicing Muslim. I also became an anthropologist, where I used it through my field work in Jerusalem, Palestine.
Describe Uncle Bobbie’s Mission?
I wanted to create community. On the window it says cool people, dope books, great coffee, and that really is the mission.
How can I create a space where people can be together again, where people can talk and exchange ideas. I’ve seen people who I haven’t seen in years and get to meet people who I would have liked to meet just didn’t have access to. You get all sort of great interactions when you meet in person.
The internet is great and awesome things happen on social media, but there is a particular value of being in the same physical space. The question then becomes what are people meeting around, what’s the organizing principle? You can meet over lots of things, you can meet over religious spaces, over music... For me, books are an awesome thing to meet around because, one, they link people who are of a certain political persuasion, certain ideological position. Everybody doesn’t think the same, but there is something about a certain kind of book that will bring a certain kind of person. I believe that books have the potential to radically change how people see or understand the world, it’s done that for so many people. So I want to be part of that.
Same with coffee, I’ve learned over the years through my travels in Africa and the Middle East just how much coffee is an organizing thing. People may not meet or talk about the coffee but it’s a centerpiece, a cultural centerpiece. From a very basic perspective, in an era of neo-liberalism and globalization, the local bookstore is being attacked, and so we needed other streams of revenue to make sure we can keep this awesome community together.
You have a great provocative book selection, can you explain the process that went into selecting these books.
I wanted it to feel unabashedly black, unabashedly progressive, unabashedly radical, even! There are different books in here for different audiences, there’s a children’s section, young adult’s fiction, and cookbooks, everything isn’t just revolutionary literature. But I’ve been heavily influenced by black bookstores, and left-wing bookstores and I wanted this store to feel like one. I asked myself what are the sections I want a black bookstore to have, I definitely need a history and biography section but I also need a gender section, and middle eastern studies section. So the first thing was laying out the sections and the second thing was which books in the section do I want to have? A lot of it was my own selection and my own thinking, while some of it was reaching out to friends and asking them for help. I hand selected each book, but for a few sections, like parenting or fiction I asked for some help and got it.
What book influenced you or had a great impact on you?
The first book that ever changed my life was the autobiography of Malcolm X and I was captivated by his story and his analyses but it did more than that, it literally set me on the course in life I’m on now. It also taught me that books can change people’s lives; it taught me that books can reorient your position toward your world and the understanding of yourself, so I said, Wow, books matter! Malcolm lead me to radical thinking and policies. He also lead me to Islam. After that I went to 52nd street in North Philly to Hakim’s bookstore. There’s a brother named Dawud Hakim, a muslim brother who eventually moved to Atlanta, but his books helped me understand Islam differently, to understand sufism, mysticism, to understanding a-hadith (sayings of prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), it was a whole different world.
My favorite drink has become the Chai Latte, But I also love the variety of Hot chocolates I can get from toasted marshmallow (halal ofcourse ;)), to banana, and raspberry flavors. Where do you source the coffee/HOt drinks from?
Two things were a factor for coffee. First, what tastes amazing, what will bring people back, because you can go to a coffee shop and not like the coffee, I’ve been to coffee shops where I love, but just couldn’t swallow the coffee. Second, I needed fair trade, I didn’t want great coffee at the expense of workers rights, at the expense of local farmers. So I wanted someone who met or exceeded the standards of fair trade and for me La Colombe did both.
Everything at Uncle Bobbie’s has a great message, including the t-shirts! What would you like to add about the apparel?
I designed a bunch of t-shirts in the store, but I also reached out to outside designers for instance Philly Printworks, "Incense, Trap, and Yoga" and other designers who’ve come up with apparell ideas, like onesies for example, who I thought would speak to our audience and it worked! Making t-shirts is something I’ve always wanted to do so I finally found a space to do it.
What is some advice you give someone pursuing a passion?
I think the first thing is to have a plan, passion won’t do it alone. My passion was selling books and if I had just opened a neighborhood bookstore we would do ok, but we wouldn’t have the type of community we have today. I spent a lot of time researching, studying the topics, the numbers. I mean I spent some time outside of the building, three hours a day looking at traffic patterns to figure out when people would come in and why. For me the research had to have a business plan. Everything takes longer than you think and everything costs more than you expect. You have to be prepared for that and be patient - take your time. It’s better to do things deliberately and at a reasonable pace than to rush through. A lot of people fail because they don’t have the resources to move forward and if you don’t have those resources, it will move you even more slowly. Its helpful to accumulate more resources so you have smaller room for error.
When you walk into Uncle Bobbie’s you feel like you've entered someone’s home, who designed it and what was the design process?
You know, I wish I could take more credit for that! Determined by Design, a wonderful boutique small company in DC, owned and operated by Kea Weatherspoon, another black-owned business did the design. We collaborated and talked about colors and schemes, but she was masterful at taking ideas from my brain that I couldn’t fully articulate and making it happen, I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s like walking into Uncle Bobbie’s living room!
Which brings me to ask, Who is Uncle Bobby?
Uncle Bobby is my father’s brother. His house is the place I went for conversations, for critical analysis. It was the first place I saw black authors and black magazines, and black publishing houses. Uncle Bobby awakened my critical spirit and pointed me into directions intellectually and politically that I otherwise would not have. He was a man ahead of his time. He was born in 1917 and died in ‘94 he didn’t get to see black presidents, he didn’t get to see a place like that. Opening up the coffee shop was an umlage, it was a way of saying... he laid a groundwork for something that I could not have anticipated. I didn’t want to name it after me I wanted to create a space that is bigger than people’s understanding of my work and who I am. I wanted to create a space that was about the people and out of memory of someone who they didn’t get to know but are still influenced by because he influenced me, so if they read my work they’re reading his work.