March 26, 2014
Marcus Books, the oldest Black bookstore in the country, in danger of closing
by Sal Robinson
Marcus Books in San Francisco is an institution. The oldest Black bookstore in the nation, the store, in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, has been in existence for over fifty years. But its future is uncertain, following last year’s bankruptcy sale of the building that houses the store.
The bookstore was started by Julius and Raye Richardson in 1960, a response to the fact that the Richardsons had found it difficult to get reading material of interest to the Black community. So they stepped into the breach themselves, first starting up a printing company, Success Printing, which subsequently became a publishing company, and then, ultimately, Marcus Books.
Over the years, the store became the site for events with readers such as Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Walter Mosley, Maya Angelou, and many more, as well as a center for the community. It also played a key role in political movements—asked in a 2008 interview on Bookslut about how the store intersected with the civil rights movement, Blanche Richardson (Julius and Raye’s daughter) responded:
Marcus Books was a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Marcus Books provided a forum for many Civil Rights and Black Power organizations. We also provided meeting space for organizations to plan their strategies—marches, rallies and the like. Marcus Books was frequently where people met up after rallies and marches. We also hosted many authors who were writing about the political scene at the time. When the Black students and faculty at San Francisco State University went on strike, our home was put up as collateral to get them out of jail. My parents were frequent speakers at various political events. Marcus Books initiated dozens of forums and seminars on race relationships and the politics of Blackness. Our family—sometimes just our family—picketed every place there was to picket: hotels, car dealerships, retail businesses, housing developments.
But this legacy is under threat. In the early 2000s, the owners took out a loan against the property to help pay expenses. It turned out to be a predatory loan, and the store soon found itself on the hook for monthly payments of up to $10,000. They were forced to declare bankruptcy and sell the building for far less than market price. However, the community rallied around the bookstore, and two nonprofits, Westside Community Services and the San Francisco Community Land Trust, began to make plans and raise money for a bid to buy the building back from its current owners, real estate developers Nishan and Suhaila Sweis, at a significant profit to them.
In February, the Sweises agreed to give the SFCLT (which will be the formal buyer) until the end of the month to raise $3 million—almost twice what they paid for the property in 2013, though down from an earlier asking price of $3.2 million. The nonprofits pulled together a million dollars, and the Richardson family turned to crowdfunding to raise the other half, starting up a campaign called “Keep It Lit & Save Marcus Books,” as well as a petition on Change.org. So far they’ve raised $17,900.00 through the campaign. There have been no updates on the situation since a February 26th article in the San Francisco Foghorn, which had optimistic quotes from supporters: Tiye Sheppard, a student at University of San Francisco who has helped out with shooting videos for the appeal and photos of the shop, said at the time that “things look very promising.”
The issue also has a special significance for the neighborhood: in the ‘50s, the Fillmore was subjected to destructive wholesale redevelopment plans that forced many African-American families out of the area. In a newly gentrified city, apparently hellbent on re-designing itself to suit young, white tech billionaires, losing Marcus Books would be a shameful historical echo.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.