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October 22, 2023

Uhuru Furniture is closing its North Philly store after 29 years, citing increased costs and gentrification

A spokesperson for the African People's Education & Defense Fund, which runs the business, says the store's demise is unrelated to criminal charges against Uhuru Movement founder Omali Yeshitela

Business Retail

Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles, a secondhand furniture store run by the African People's Education & Defense Fund, will close its doors on North Broad Street on Oct. 31 after nearly 30 years in business.

A storied institution of North Philadelphia's Black community is getting ready to say goodbye. Uhuru Furniture & Collectibles, a second-hand furniture shop started by civil rights nonprofit the African People's Education & Defense Fund in 1994, announced earlier this month that its store on North Broad Street will shut its doors for good on Oct. 31. 

For the last 29 years, Uhuru has sold affordable used furniture, home decor and other household items that had been donated to the store – in many cases, through its free donation pickup service. After initially operating in Center City at 12th and Spruce streets in 1994, Uhuru relocated to its current – and it seems, final – location at North Broad and Parrish streets in 2014. 

Uhuru also operates a moving service called On the Move, which is also shutting down. An Uhuru sister store run by APEDF in Oakland, California, for the last 34 years is set to close SundayIn a press statement, the APEDF blamed "skyrocketing rents" and other growing costs for making it impossible for its secondhand furniture businesses to keep operating. 

"We don't see this as a defeat," said Ruby Gittelsohn, a community relations specialist involved with the APEDF for more than 40 years. "It's a victory that it was able to survive so long and contribute to APEDF and to the community here in Philadelphia."

On Uhuru Philly's Instagram account, news of the store's impending demise sparked a slew of comments and sad-face emojis from customers mourning the loss of the beloved store, sharing memories of shopping there and in some cases, wondering if there was anything that could be done to save it. But as the store's management responded to one such commenter, "Unfortunately it's too late."

Why a civil rights nonprofit opened a furniture store

For APEDF, the motivation for opening a used furniture store in the mid-90s was twofold. First and foremost, it was a convenient fundraising tool. Since its launch, Uhuru Furniture has been an economic development arm for the organization, with 100% of the store's profits going to support APEDF financially.  

But just an importantly, it provided a much-needed resource to an underserved community. At the time, there weren't many options for North Philadelphia residents looking to buy groceries, let alone affordable furniture and home decor. 

"It was an unmet need for people in the community to be able to buy high-quality furniture at very reasonable prices," Gittelsohn said. "Multiple generations of people have shopped here, not only because they got good deals on stuff, but because they wanted to support something that was making a difference in the Black community." 

While the 2014 move to North Broad Street was a logical – and much welcomed – one for an organization focused on empowering and serving the Black community, the neighborhood immediately surrounding Uhuru has dramatically changed since – and not always to the benefit of its longtime residents. 

Just a few doors down from Uhuru, long lines of people often snake around the once empty block in anticipation of whoever is performing at The Met that evening – an increasingly common sight since the concert venue reopened in 2018. And while it was considered a food desert not that long ago, this stretch of North Broad now boasts an Aldi, a Giant and a Trader Joe's within walking distance from one another. 

These new real estate developments – along with the bars, restaurants and massive condominiums that seem to keep popping up everywhere – may be perceived by some as signs of progress. To Gittelsohn and many who work at Uhuru, they are symbols of the type of gentrification that often spells doom for longtime small businesses like theirs. 

Everything must go: Why is Uruhu closing down?

"The main reason for the store closing is the high cost of doing business," Gittelsohn said. "If you look south down Broad, there are tons of small local businesses that are shutting down. There's been tons of gentrification in Philly, but now it's here."

While it's a bittersweet moment for many who frequented the store, Gittelsohn said Uhuru's closure is more of a pivot than a failure. The spirit of the beloved shop will carry on in other APEDF-run events, such as the One Africa One Nation Marketplace that takes place monthly at Clark Park in West Philadelphia from April though October each year. 

APEDF is also developing plans for a workforce development program to provide job training and support for members of the community having difficulty finding employment, Gittelsohn said. 

The APEDF is an offshoot of the broader Uhuru Movement, a socialist and African internationalist political movement founded by civil rights and Black Power activist Omali Yeshitela in 1972. The APEDF runs a variety of economic development initiatives aimed at supporting the Black communities in St. Louis, Oakland, Philadelphia and St. Petersburg, Florida, where the organization is based. 

In April of this year, Yeshitela and three other members of the Uhuru Movement were indicted on federal charges for allegedly conspiring with Russian agents to sow discord in the U.S. and interfere illegally with U.S. elections. 

The indictment, which Uhuru supporters dismiss as being false allegations that violate freedom of speech, came nine months after the 81-year-old Yeshiteli had his home raided by the FBI. Lawyers for so-called 'Uhuru 3' filed a motion in late September seeking to have the charges dropped.

However it unfolds in court, the situation appears to be having potential financial consequences for the APEDF. In March, the group abruptly had its bank accounts, lines of credit and mortgages cut off by longtime banking partner Regions Bank. In an Instagram post, Uhuru Furniture & Collections decried what it described as "racist economic sanctions," which included a request from the bank to immediately pay off a $70,000 mortgage on a bakery operated by the organization in St. Louis. 

But when asked if Yeshiteli's legal cases and the potential economic fallout had any impact on the furniture store's operations, Gittelsohn said the two matters were not related. 

While its furniture stores may be going out of business – and the overall impact of recent legal and banking woes on its finances remains unclear – the APEDF has been experiencing substantial financial growth in the last few years. After remaining relatively consistent for several years, the organization's total revenue jumped by 78% between 2020 and 2021, according to tax filings. APEDF's net income ballooned even more dramatically, jumping 407% from 2019 to 2020, and then another 277% from 2020 to 2021.

For now, the organization is getting out of the furniture-selling business entirely. To get rid of their inventory, Uhuru is having a fire sale at its store on Broad Street until it closes at the end of the month. Until then, everything will be 30% off, with buy-one-get-one-free deals on items like lamps and mirrors. The organization already had a one-day furniture giveaway event at its warehouse at 2401 W. Allegheny Ave. on Oct. 15. 

"We really want to encourage everyone to come down and say goodbye," Gittelsohn said. "We want to stay in contact with everybody, and we want to continue our relationships with our community. We're not just bailing."