Marcus Books: Oldest African-American Bookstore Fights to Stay Open
“The African-American experience has always been told,” says Reverend Arnold Townsend, vice president of the NAACP San Francisco chapter. “In the bookstore, it never dies because it’s in print.”
Marcus Books opened in 1960 in San Francisco’s historically black Fillmore district. Now, the country’s oldest African-American-owned bookstore is at risk of closure.
Having fallen victim to a loan scheme, the shop’s part-owner Blanche Richardson was forced into bankruptcy. The property was bought by real estate investors Nishan and Suhaila Sweis. Last week, the Sweises began legal eviction process. But thanks to community activism, the shop remains open, for now.
Housed in a lavender Victorian home, Marcus Books has been a hub for African-American literature, culture, and political life in San Francisco. Rosa Parks and Malcolm X spoke, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison read, and John Coltrane and Duke Ellington once played on those floors.
The district supervisor has introduced a resolution supporting the building’s preservation, urging its current owners to re-sell to an owner who will keep it a vibrant community space. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission is considering a landmark designation for the building in a hearing on September 13.
“It’s not just a black issue,” says Karen Johnson, the bookstore founders’ daughter and current manager of the San Francisco shop. “It’s a humanity issue.”
Marcus Books began in 1960 when Julian and Raye Richardson, who owned a small printing press, saw the need for a neighborhood bookstore. It moved to Fillmore Street in 1981. But the building itself had an even richer history. Before Marcus Books, it was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, a legendary progressive jazz club.
“After they performed in the segregated clubs downtown, they came back to play for their community,” says Karen Kai, member of the coalition to save Marcus Books and community educator at Fifth Stream Music.
The district was once a thriving, diverse neighborhood. “I heard an old man say to a young fellow, ‘At night you could go on top of Broadway Hill and look back and it looked just like New York City,’” says Townsend. “It was amazing.”
Then, the Fillmore in the Western Addition district underwent redevelopment in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The three-story Victorian building was moved to its current location to save it from demolition.
“The building is not just about the African-American experience but also embodies the impact of redevelopment,” says Mary Brown, preservation planner for the City of San Francisco. “Many blocks were destroyed and it forced the displacement of the African-American community.”
“The bookstore is different things for different people,” Townsend says. For him, it’s a rare place to find books on Christian thought by African-American authors.
“I’m also a baseball guy so I get a lot of books there about black baseball,” he adds.
In addition to readings, the bookstore also hosts local and traveling musicians who play on their sidewalk.
“This was a place of creativity,” Kai says. “And today it’s this wonderful bookstore that’s keeping alive African-American history, culture, and tradition.”
Raye Richardson, now 93, lived upstairs. Her daughter Karen Johnson and her husband Greg who manage the store on Fillmore Street lived upstairs, too. The family had to vacate the premises, moving to Oakland with the exception of one daughter who had a lease on the space.
Nonprofit organization Westside Community Services has offered to buy back the property. But the Sweises have not reopened negotiations.
On September 13, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission will hold a hearing to consider initiating a historical landmark designation for the building. However, the Commission cannot mandate ownership or use of the building.
“A landmark designation does not mean that the bookstore can stay in that space,” Brown clarifies. “But what it would do is recognize the historical importance of the building and the events, people, and activities that took place there.”
The family has posted a Change.org petition online, signed by over 14,000 people vouching to save the bookstore.
“We may have to close until the building is repurchased,” Johnson says. “But I’m not going to write my own obituary.”
“It’s the soul of the city," Johnson claims. "The soul is the longest lived part of something and it’s essential. If you do not have that part, you are not alive.”
“All people need to have their history written down somewhere,” says Townsend. So as the litigation process begins, local preservationists fight on to keep San Francisco's African-American tradition written and alive.
[Update: The Historic Preservation Commission hearing has been postponed to September 13, 2013, previously scheduled for August 21. Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly named Karen Richardson for the bankruptcy.]