It’s just before noon on the Saturday of St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and two tipsy Penn students stumble into a shop on the 34th block of Sansom Street. One is dressed normally save the green color of his shirt and a string of clover–shaped beads around his neck, while the other wears a St. Patty’s–themed scarf tied around his midsection like a sarong.
“How are you doing, John?” the latter of the students, Oliver Corcoran (C ‘22), says. “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!”
“You’re a bit late,” the owner quips as the students turn toward a glass case across from the register. Noticing their drunken demeanor, he adds, “Watch out for that glass, Oliver.”
The students laugh off the observation and begin detailing what delayed their routine trip to the store. “We’ve been partying straight since yesterday,” Oliver says. His friend, Gilles Gouraige (C ‘23), agrees: “He’s drunk, just give us a bit.”
After a few minutes of browsing and chitchat, Oliver sets down a few cigars—Don Pepin Blues, to be exact—and a Toblerone bar on the counter before handing over his credit card. After a customary fist bump and the cutting of their cigars, the students scurry out the door, returning to the festivities.
This is only one of many similar interactions that John Shahidi, owner of Avril 50, has each day. Since opening the international coffee/tea/magazine/tobacco/snack store in 1984, Shahidi has built a long list of loyal customers, despite the frequent turnover of Penn students who comprise his regulars.
“Everyone who walks through the door is a human being—another person, another customer—not a number or dollar sign,” he explains. “I made a lot of friends through the store. I've seen three generations here.”
Beside the analog register sits a purple notebook resting on a display stand. Like a guest book at a wedding, Shahidi collects notes from his regulars—and not a single one has anything bad to say.
Avril got me through law school, one note reads.
It’s like being back in Europe, writes another.
A third customer pens a few stanzas of a poem, a sort of ode to the peace they feel inside the store.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of these pages. Some just have signatures, others have paragraphs–long declarations of the writers’ love for Avril 50. When asked how far these notes go back, he sighs. “2008,” he says. “I should have started it in 1984.”
Indeed, the purple book captures something that no Yelp review ever could. Each of these customers knows Shahidi by name, and in turn, he remembers each of them—their lives at Penn, their hometowns, and of course, their daily coffee orders.
When another customer walks in, she grabs a pastry and gives Shahidi a quick wave as she leaves. He pulls a card from a little box under the counter, jots something down, and goes about his day. “Another regular,” he explains.
What he doesn’t explain is why he still uses a Rolodex to track customers’ tabs.
Within minutes of entering the shop, you experience Avril 50 with all of your senses. The coffee creates a distinct sweetness in the air, without the chemical undertones of a chain like Starbucks. The magazines so generously laid out on the store’s racks—and floor, sometimes—remind you of your grandma’s book collection or a little shop in Paris. The classical music that plays in the background mingles with the whistle of the espresso machine.
Shahidi has never settled on a single word to describe the feeling his shop creates. “They call it ‘oasis,’ they call it ‘time capsule.’ Whatever it is, people love it. I love it. And it’s gonna be that way forever.”
Shahidi first came to America in the 1970s to pursue an MBA. His wife, Shiva Vakili, came along to pursue a degree of her own. After receiving their diplomas, the couple planned to return home to Tehran, Iran and build a life.
But the Iranian Revolution in 1979 halted their plans. Shahidi isn’t particularly religious, and he took issue with the new regime’s theocratic mode of governance.
The couple decided to remain in the United States, where Shahidi began to pursue a master’s at Penn. As time went on and his family’s finances remained unstable from the revolution, he turned to on–campus employment to pay his bills, running the shops in the basement of Houston Hall.
After sharpening his business acuity there for three years, Shahidi realized he wanted more than to manage the University’s knick–knack shops. When he and his wife saw that the building at 3406 Sansom St. was for rent, she turned to him and said without hesitation, “Let’s do this.”
Shahidi immediately got to work picking out his inventory: a collection of his favorite magazines, premium tobacco, and a boatload of coffee. In his mind, all three would be enjoyed together in the building’s basement cafe: You’d come in, grab a cigar or espresso and a magazine, and forget that the outside world existed.
This was a time before no–smoking rules were enforced, when reading the news still meant ink on paper. Shahidi quickly carved out his niche among other newsstands by providing something few others did: international publications.
Whether you were an international student who wanted to keep up to date with your home country’s news or an international relations major trying to pass your next exam, Avril 50 was your window to the rest of the world.
Tobacco is yet another of his favorite things that’ve lost popularity over the years. In the ‘80s, students would buy a pack of cigarettes to smoke as they studied or read the paper.
While the basement cafe closed only a few years into the shop’s existence, the coffee remains as popular as ever. Even on a Saturday morning when most people would be sleeping in or out at brunch, Shahidi gets dozens of students passing through looking for a latte or espresso shot to get them through the day.
Over the years, he’s twice tried expanding Avril 50 to other locations, realizing both times that it’s impossible to replicate the success he’s had at 3406 Sansom.
After 37 years of operations, Avril 50 has seen much and changed little. It’s the oldest shop on that block of Sansom Street—a fact that’s not entirely surprising given its old–timey aura, but impressive nonetheless. While stores around it shuttered their doors, Avril 50 stayed open.
The COVID–19 pandemic was the final nail in the coffin for many University City favorites, and Shahidi came close to becoming another of its casualties. He had to shut his doors for three months to comply with local regulations, and in that time, he considered closing for good—without Penn students bustling around campus, Shahidi wasn’t making enough money to support his operating costs.
“They’re not there, so my life is almost empty,” he told The Daily Pennsylvanian in June of 2020.
Although students and alumni couldn’t be there in person to support Avril 50, they didn’t abandon the place that had been such a cornerstone of their time on campus.
During the early months of the pandemic, Shahidi recalls receiving “40 to 50 calls a day” from customers. Some asked about mail options for their favorite international titles, but most just wanted to see how he was doing. So much more than a mere purveyor of hard–to–find magazines and tobacco, Shahidi felt just as important to them as a longtime coworker or friend.
Thankfully, the closure of Avril 50 was temporary. After just a few months, Shahidi reopened his doors to serve the few students that populated the semi–ghost town that was Penn’s campus in late 2020.
A year later, business was back to normal, and students returned to their drunken cigarette runs and sleep–deprived caffeine hunts.
Shahidi's shop survived what few others could: the decline of print journalism, the rise of franchise entrepreneurship, a global pandemic. It’s difficult to say why. Some might speculate that the store stayed afloat as a result of Shahidi's financial assets. (Above the shop are apartment units he rents out, a profitable source of income in the competitive real estate market of University City.) Others remark that Avril 50 has some essential, unreplicable quality that keeps them coming back.
“It’s not a good world anymore, so this is the world where you come here and you forget,” Shahidi says. “A lot of people just come here to relax, they don’t even buy things.”
The shop remains this little piece of the world as Shahidi wants to remember it. There are no high–tech gadgets to indicate that you’re still in 2022; you’ll never find Shahidi using a Square–equipped iPad or even a laptop. Avril 50 today feels just like Avril 50 in 1984, down to the clack of his cash register’s buttons and the sheen of glossy magazine covers.
“Now, a lot of people don’t read. But my customers, they would rather have the [sense of] touch,” he says. “Detail has to be on paper.”
Shahidi believes it can exist this way forever. Even as newspapers go digital–only and Juuls become the primary mode of nicotine delivery, he has faith that people will still want a place to escape all that—to remind themselves of a less complicated world.
“It’s not them that change, the world changes,” he says of his customers.
And for Shahidi, that’s enough to convince him to stay.
Everything about the store feels tied to some facet of Shahidi's life in one way or another. Even its name, Avril 50, harkens back to Shahidi's roots: He was born in April of 1950, where, speaking Farsi, the month would be called “Avril.” It often feels like Shahidi and his store are one and the same.
“This is basically a collage of my brain,” he explains. And he means it.
Aside from a week or two here and there during summer or winter breaks, Shahidi never closes the store. He’s been open every day except Sundays for almost 40 years, save a few months during the COVID–19 pandemic.
For those decades, Shahidi's life has remained tied to Penn’s campus.
He hasn’t returned to Iran since he first immigrated to the United States, despite still having family living in Tehran. He explains the decision with a simple shrug: “I’m not interested.”
Shahidi lives his life through Penn students—listening to their crazy party stories, watching them struggle to pass MATH 104, and serving them coffee—but he himself remains as much of a fixture at Penn as the shop itself.
“This is my world,” he says.
The entire shop, Shahidi included, can at times feel frozen in amber as everything else swirls around it. But nothing is ever truly preserved—like so many other small businesses, Avril 50 is just one stroke of bad luck away from nonexistence.
Avril 50 likely won’t remain an “oasis” forever, but if Shahidi has anything to say about it, it’ll last at least as long as he does. And maybe that’s enough.