It’s Always Avril in West Philadelphia

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Class of ’89 | The aromas hit you all at once: rich coffee, chocolate, spicy tobacco, aged paper. The walls display every magazine you’ve never seen—Wad, Der SpiegelSleazenation032c—and an array of bizarre posters, yellowed with age: One portrays a giant tooth with bristles growing out the top; another, a hysterical Salvador Dalí. 

This is Avril 50. Squeezed into a brownstone on the 3400 block of Sansom Street, marked only by a weathered yellow awning, it’s a café and a magazine store and smoke shop. Its vaguely Parisian aesthetic harkens back to a time before Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. A whole wall is given over to bins of coffee beans, which complement the freshly brewed pots up front, which in turn flank boxes full of imported chocolates. Behind the register, right by the framed “Best of Philly” awards, is every type of offbeat smoke and snuff. In the back are rows of magazines, postcards, paperbacks. Opera streaming through the speakers fills in the remaining empty space.

“This is my creation,” says John Shahidi WG’80 G’89. “I put every nail in with my own hand.”

The idea for Avril 50 came to him while he was an MBA student at Wharton. “I started this and still it’s one of a kind in the US,” he says. “I will even say, in the world.” 

While it was always his dream to open such a spot, it wasn’t always in his plans. He and his wife, Shiva Vakili G’81 Gr’03, left Iran 35 years ago for graduate school at Penn. He has a master’s in international relations as well as an MBA in international business; her degrees are in near-eastern languages and cultures and information technology. The plan was to finish school, then return to Iran and work in foreign service.

Then the revolution happened. Shahidi and his wife could not go back.

“When you get hit by a bad thing, what are you going to do?” he asks pointedly. “Just sit there and wait?”

So Shahidi bought an empty storefront and got to work. He created everything himself—right down to the bins of custom-roasted coffees, each with its own handwritten description.

It wasn’t easy. Shahidi had to juggle the responsibilities of his small business with his coursework and yet another job at Penn’s linguistics department. His wife helped out, but she had her own coursework to keep up with, as well as two other jobs. When the shop first opened, the couple had even set up a café with tables in the shop’s basement, where they served home-cooked food.

Shahidi, who likes to ask questions more than answer them, named the store after his birth month and year: April 1950 (Avril means April in Persian and French). He’s been running the store for 27 years now, and he really gets to know his customers.

“If someone walks in from 20 years ago, a smoker, I will remember his brand,” says Shahidi. He’s also there to counsel and console customers after rough days—a key ingredient in a place that one regular describes as “a balm for the soul.”

“You come here, you forget what is out there for a minute or so,” Shahidi says. “I’ve made a lot of friends through this. They keep coming in.”

Today, a chic blonde undergrad orders one of Shahidi’s European-style hot chocolates. She really needs one, she says: “I had an exam that didn’t go so well.” 

“What? You didn’t eat before?” Shahidi shakes his head. (His son Yasha C’11 was a Penn student until recently, so he’s used to this sort of thing.) “You don’t have to get an A in every single course.”

He often frets that people don’t read print publications anymore, but customers—especially designers—still seek out the periodicals he carries. “You don’t get stuff online the same way you see it on paper,” he says.

The market for his magazines is so niche that even as traditional news outlets lose out to new media, the eclectic mix of things at Avril 50 draws a loyal following: where else do the New York, Paris, and London Review of Books mingle with trashy Euro romance novels and vintage Playboys? “They may not buy as many, but they still come,” he says. 

Avril 50 is a one-man show, and Shahidi is both man and show. Every morning he wakes up at 4:30 a.m., gets to the store by 5:30, and works until 7 at night. (“I get only four hours of sleep,” he says. “It’s all I need.”) Even after he closes shop, there are often business matters to be dealt with at home. Except for the two weeks he takes off every summer, he works weekdays and weekends, all year long. It helps slightly that he drinks 10 to 12 cups of coffee and three or four shots of espresso a day.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what he loves. 

“As long as I can stand,” Shahidi says firmly, “I’m going to keep working.”

—Maanvi Singh C’13   

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