Avril 50 is more than just a home to 3,000 or so periodicals, coffee, tea and tobacco products. For the many loyal customers, it is an escape from a harsh reality. It's a place on Penn's campus where the world stops moving for a few minutes. And for owner John (Yahya) Shahidi, from 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. every day but Sunday, it is an oasis.
For those who don't know, what is your name?
My name is John. Everybody knows me as John. Last name is Shahidi. I am originally from Iran, but I came to the United States 28 years ago. This store's been open for 20.
What was your inspiration for opening this store?
Well, I came for graduate work at Penn. I went to Columbia then transferred here with my wife. I studied International Relations and International Business. I was taking courses, working for the University and while I was taking courses I used to be night manager and weekend manager of Houston Hall.
This operation is a lot bigger?
Exactly. I thought this campus needed a thing like this.
It certainly does. What does Avril 50 mean?
April 1950 ... it's when I was born. [Laughs] So now everybody knows that.
How would you describe this store?
Heaven. Oasis. That's not me, a lot of my customers say so. Umm ... it's a good store. We sell periodicals, coffees, teas, soft drinks, cold drinks, hot drinks, cigars. Basically all the good things in life. [Laughs]
How do you choose which periodicals your store carries?
Sometimes I get requests. I look for them. Sometimes I get notices from different publishers. I'm not that popular. Popular is the wrong word. I am not that famous, but a lot of people know about me. I've been here 20 years. I've been around the University of Penn for 28 years. I mean, I love this campus. This is my life, this campus. Sometimes I think, if I retire, what am I going to do? I can't get out and work. This campus ... I grew up on this campus, basically.
Seems like you have a lot invested in this campus.
I have a lot invested in this campus. I have made so many friends here, and my customers are not numbers for me, they are individual people. I know them, basically, 85-90% by first name. They come and they go. They graduate, they still come. They go away for 20 years and have a reunion, they make sure to stop here.
So you would say that your customers are primarily regulars?
I would say that my customers are primarily part of my extended family, to tell you the truth. Sometimes I think: If I didn't have this place, what would I do? I look forward to coming in here and see everybody come in. You know, discuss things, shoot the breeze ... it is absolutely incredible. I'm probably one of the few people that say, I love what I do. I mean, I love what I do.
Do you think this is a good career path for graduate students?
Oh yes. Oh yes. I am happy -- that's the main thing. You work; you study everything to be happy. When you're happy, you're happy. I'm not saying there's a lot of money in it. I'm not saying it's not a lot of hard work, it's a lot of hard work. I put in 16 hours a day here, six days. Sundays, half the time I am here. You have to love to do this. Most of the time, it's my customers and Penn. I love this place, this University, I love it.
Do you indulge in all the goods you vend in your store?
I indulge, yes. I indulge, whatever that is. I indulge for being here.
I mean, do you smoke cigarettes ...?
I smoked cigarettes for 25 years. I quit 15 years ago, before my son was born. I didn't want to be a smoking father, to tell you the truth. [Laughs] So, I quit, and I have no urge. Cigars, you know, once in a while if there's a celebration of something, yes, I may smoke one cigar.
Your motivations to quit had no impact on selling them?
As I say to a lot of my customers, if you are ready, you quit. I was ready. If you're not ready, it's going to be difficult.
There's tons and tons of cigars.
Tons and tons of cigarettes and I'd probably smoked every one of them in the last 25 years of my life. [Laughs] I started early, quit 15 years ago.
What about the coffee, are you a big coffee fan?
I am a big coffee fan, a big tea fan. I am a wine fan. I collect wines, but I'm not a big collector. I usually drink them! [Laughs] Coffee, I love it. Tea, I love it.
How many cups would you say you have in a day?
I drink, depending on the day and how tired I am, usually 10 cups of regular coffee, and if I'm very tired two to four shots of espresso. And, the one that I just had now is for the road. [Laughs]
In terms of location, 3046 Sansom is right near the main part of Penn's campus. Do you get any customers from Drexel or beyond?
I get teachers and faculty from Drexel, I get calls from Temple, St. Joes, Bryn Mawr, I get calls sometimes from out-of-towners: New York, New Jersey, Delaware.
How do they know?
Well, I'm out there I guess, word-of-mouth. I can't afford any advertisement, but I've been here 20 years. I don't know the average number of graduates that come over here. 2,000? Let's say 1,000 pass through here. How many of those people know me? From the law school, I calculate that there's probably like 6 to 7,000 lawyers out there that went through my coffee. And they still come back from all over the place. Even those in foreign countries -- if they visit Philadelphia -- they make sure to stop by just to get that feeling.