By the counter of Avril 50 stands a man with thick, black-trimmed glasses. He isn’t a man of many words, but lots of his customers know his name—John Shahidi.
While blooming restaurants like White Dog Café, Baby Blues BBQ, and Federal Donuts make the corner at 34th and Sansom Street appealing to Penn’s gourmets, Avril 50 is still attracting local communities to its eclectic selection of exquisite coffee, tea, tobacco, confectioneries, international magazines, and postcards. John Shahidi is the man behind it all.
The name of Shahidi’s shop derives from his birth month of April 1950. Sixty–eight years ago, he was born in Iran and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting in Tehran. After serving two years of mandatory military service Iran, he came to the United States in 1980 to pursue an MBA at Wharton and later a master in Political Science also from Penn. His wife and son also graduated from Penn—a “Penn Family,” as he calls it.
Seven days a week, from 6 am to 7 pm, Shahidi pounds coffee beans, helps customers and answers phone calls. He usually arrives at his store an hour before its opening and spends another hour there after closing. In his spare time, he reads magazines and newspapers and listens to the radio, but never watches TV.
Shahidi opened Avril 50 in 1984, making it the oldest institution on Sansom Street. It is the type of store that is difficult to summarize, though the closest term to describe it might be—as Shahidi calls it—an “oasis.” Different from United by Blue or Pret A Manger, Avril 50 doesn’t sell things based on popular trends. “The city had nothing like this,” says Shahidi.
Kettles with handwritten labels—Vienna Roast, Italian Roast, Blueberry, and Avril 50 Blend—line the wall, carefully curated for coffee connoisseurs. Avril 50 blend, Shahidi’s self–invented signature coffee, is a campus favorite due to its strong yet comforting flavor. It took Shahidi four years to perfect the recipe of this blend. “I will not tell you what’s in this blend,” says Shahidi who bursts out into laughters, “But it’s the best coffee that I can find.” The blend can also be used in ice coffee that at Avril 50 comes with must–try coffee cubes.
Shahidi selects every item for the store, including the posters pasted onto the wall for decoration. A card that says “Grow Your Own Mushrooms” is placed on the top left corner of the door. “It’s a magazine’s subscription card and I think it’s interesting,” says Shahidi. The ambiance of Avril 50 could only have been created by Shahidi given its uniqueness and personal touches.
From China’s green tea leaves to Belgium’s milk chocolate candies, from rolling papers to an obsolete hookah pipe sitting on top of a bookshelf, many items at Avril 50 depict the changes in Penn’s student life over decades. “Hookah was once popular at Penn,” says Shahidi, “but now it’s vape.” But Shahidi doesn’t always change his inventory based on trends.
Despite the change in the new generation’s reading habits, which have shifted from paper to the internet, Avril 50 preserves the charm of browsing through magazines. Publications of different languages are offered here, such as French, Arabic, German, Chinese, and English. Customers are welcomed to look for what they like among those piles of magazines. Some would even inquire with Shahidi for specific kind of magazines.
An elderly man walks into the store on a Sunday afternoon and asks Shahidi whether he has Sports Illustrated. “It’s for a friend at the hospital,” says the man. When he is paying the bill at the counter, he tells Shahidi that he graduated from Penn 50 years ago and really loves the store. Conversations like this occur frequently at Avril 50 and are one of Shahidi's favorite parts of his job.
Shahidi is also known for his offbeat posts on Avril 50’s Facebook page, which he reveals are actually found poems composed out of magazines’ names. For example, he posted on December 2017 that “Sunday girls came with mandrawn teeth,” in which Sunday Girls, Mandrawn, and Teeth are all names of magazines that can be bought at Shahidi’s store.
“You are seeing exactly what was here 34 years ago,” says Shahidi. But he admits that some little things have changed. For example, there used to be a sit–down cafe in the basement, but later the two student employees were too busy to keep it running. Shahidi was ambitious to open two more branches of the store, one in Philadelphia suburbs and another in Rittenhouse Square, but they were forced to shut down. And Shahidi is no longer playing music using tapes or CD; the speaker is now connected to the playlist on his iPhone. But the types of the music are still the same—classics, opera, and sometimes jazz.
Shahidi shows no interest in going back to Iran when talking about his birthplace, without going into many details. After moving to the United States, the best country in his opinion, he built an oasis at Avril 50, and he will be working here to the end of his days.