By John Morrison
Located in the city’s historic Germantown area, Uncle Bobbie’s has all of the warm aesthetic qualities of a quaint coffee shop and bookstore, but a quick look at its shelves reveals a deeper purpose. Among its selections, the shop carries fresh copies of titles like “Malcolm X: Socialism and Black Nationalism,” Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism” and Frantz Fanon’s pioneering critical race study, “The Wretched of the Earth.”
Opened in November of 2017 by Philadelphia-born author, educator and activist Marc Lamont Hill, Uncle Bobbie’s is a coffee shop that is inspired by the black radical tradition. Named after Hill’s late uncle, the shop has a home-like atmosphere, where people can come to drink, eat, learn and create community.
“So many people come into the shop and comment on how much it feels like ’home,’” says Uncle Bobbie’s event coordinator Isabel Ballester. “The interior design was purposefully modeled after the aesthetic of [the real] Uncle Bobbie’s house, which is why it feels that way to so many people. Staff definitely play a part in that. Given that cafés are known to be a part of upper-middle-class white culture, it’s critical that our staff reflect the community of people we serve in Germantown.”
Speaking on the impetus behind the shop’s creation, Hill has expressed his desire to create a truly community-oriented space that would serve as a means of support for those who find themselves marginalized by harsh political, social and market conditions. Ballester echoes those motivations.
“At a moment where people are being divided and neighborhoods are being dismantled,” she says, “Uncle Bobbie’s is a community space designed for sharing, building, learning, laughing, debating, eating and building.”
In addition to the wide selection of books and refreshments, it is Uncle Bobbie’s event calendar that solidifies its place as space for liberation. Past events have included talks with renowned authors, such as African-American scholar Michael Eric Dyson, as well as activist-led workshops on the school-to-prison pipeline, a men’s wellness workshop, weekly movie nights screening films such as “Get Out” and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” as well as political documentaries like “A Great & Mighty Walk” and “James Baldwin: I Am Not Your Negro.”
It is this alignment of a truly liberatory political programming alongside food and drink that makes Uncle Bobbie’s a qualitatively different space than the typical coffee shops in Center City, Brewerytown and Northern Liberties. Uncle Bobbie’s has maintained its unique identity by being rooted in Philadelphia’s long heritage of black, working-class political scholarship and activism.
“The personal is political,” Ballester says. “While there are specific events that are more obviously ’political,’ I’d like to think that all of the events we put on have a political side. Through author events, symposiums, teach-ins and workshops, we are able to encourage community members, old and new, to continue on this journey of growth and knowledge. We love supporting the activist community, and have hosted events that do that, and we’re interested in supporting other communities, too, activist or not.”