Greg Johnson, co-owner of Marcus Books, shakes hands with Mayor Ed Lee at City Hall. (Photo by Hamis Al Sharif)

A Story Ending? Historic San Francisco Bookstore May Face Closure

In 1960, Black history was made when Julian and Raye Richardson opened the bookstore known today as Marcus Books. Proudly proclaimed as “the oldest Black bookstore in the nation,” Marcus Books has been at its present location, in a three-story Victorian on Fillmore St. (between Sutter St. and Post St.), since 1981.

For more than 50 years Marcus Books has served as a cornerstone to showcase the great literary achievement of African-American writers. The store gained its fame by hosting African-American authors, poets, and musicians, such as Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm X, Earth Wind & Fire, Dave Chapelle, Toni Morrison, and Queen Latifah. The Richardsons created a place where people could learn about and enjoy Afrocentric culture, history, politics and literature.
But last year, as a result of a predatory loan and eventual bankruptcy, the family was forced to sell the Fillmore property, which, in addition to housing the store, was also home to three generations of the family. After months of organizing and negotiating by Marcus Books supporters, the real estate developers who bought the property agreed to give the Richardsons until the end of February to raise $3 million — twice what they paid for the property — to buy it back.

As of publication time, the fate of the landmark cultural institution was in doubt, though whether or not Marcus Books raised enough money to buy the property back should be determined by early next week.

A pair of Dons, Denise Sullivan, class of 1983, and Tiye Sheppard, a junior media studies major, worked for several months with a core group committed to saving the Fillmore treasure. Sullivan helped with organizing and getting the word out about Marcus Books, and Sheppard, a film studies minor, shot a history of the store and public appeal videos.

In response to the fate of Marcus Books, Sheppard, who attended a meeting with store owners and financers on Monday, said, “no answer that can be released but I can say that things look very promising.”

According to Sheppard, a settlement agreement must be met by the end of this week. “Votes will be casted tomorrow, [Tuesday Feb. 25], from a financial source that can assure a positive fate for Marcus Books. Unfortunately, since it’s a vote, we don’t know for sure what will happen, but things are looking good according to our sources,” she said.

Sullivan, a music journalist and historian, got involved with Marcus Books when her fourth book, “Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip Hop,” came out in 2011. Even though Sullivan had relationships with other bookstores, she said, “It was Marcus Books, black-owned and specializing in Black history, that embraced me as an author more than any of the other bookstores or outlets I had previously dealt with. So when I heard they were in trouble, I felt that the least I could do was to be on their side.”

Sheppard is a native San Franciscan and has seen the city go through many changes and gentrification. She got involved with saving Marcus Books when Sullivan reached out to the Media Studies department for help. As an African-American woman, Sheppard believes protecting Marcus Books will benefit younger generations.
“The African-American population is dwindling by the day,” Sheppard said. “It would really be unfortunate to no longer have a positive representation of black business owners. If we want little kids, particularly kids of color, to grow up and have an inspiration, they should [think], ‘Oh, I don’t have to be that guy standing on the corner; I can be that guy reading that book in that bookstore.’”

For the past several years the store has been run by Karen Johnson, one of the Richardsons’ daughters, her husband Greg, and their daughter named Tamiko. Julian Richardson died in 2000, while Raye Richardson, 93, had been living with the Johnsons above the store.
Sheppard and Sullivan were with the Johnsons and other key supporters on February 13 when Mayor Ed Lee signed paperwork designating 1712-1716 Fillmore Street a historic city landmark. The Victorian building has two claims to that status: long before it was a bookstore, it was a famous jazz club called Jimbo’s Bop City.

Sullivan noted that Julian Davis, the Johnsons’ lawyer, and Grace Martinez, a community organizer for Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, steered the committee that rose up to fight for Marcus Books. San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen and Supervisor London Breed also pushed to keep Marcus Books where it is.

“It was a community response,” Sullivan said. “The store never asked anything of us. People came forward and wanted to see it preserved. And another thing that I feel is worth reiterating is that the store is not having bad business. It was matters of the physical property and the sale that put the business in jeopardy.”

Another native San Franciscan, actor Danny Glover (“The Color Purple” and “Predator 2”), helped Marcus Books with their “Keep It Lit” grassroots campaign — a campaign to raise a million dollars in 30 days, from Jan. 20 to Feb. 20. If Marcus Books is saved, the campaign will continue, said Sheppard. “The work is not done; we’ve just gotten started. Donations will go towards compensating for borrowed funds from community lenders,” she said.

A big part of the reason Marcus Books inspires such devotion is to due to the legacy of founders Julian and Raye Richardson.
The Richardsons established the Malcolm X school, dedicated to strengthening the education of  San Francisco youth, and Julian Richardson, who ran Success Printing Company, printed issues of San Francisco State University’s student newspaper “The Organ,” after the SFSU board refused to publish it due to the student strike of 1968. As a result of that student strike, Raye Richardson became one of the founders of SFSU’s ethnic studies program. Last fall the store held a “legacy celebration,” and former poet laureate of San Francisco Devorah Major credited Raye Richardson with being the first person to help her realize she was a writer.

“I knew that the store had a rightful place in literary history, American history and San Francisco history,” Sullivan said. “As a native San Franciscan, I am concerned about the cultural welfare of this city, all of its citizens, and the African American culture in general.”

Marcus Books supporters worked with ColorOfChange.org, an organization dedicated to strengthening African American political voices nationwide, to create a petition that drew more than 14,000 signatures in support of the store.

Westside Community Services (WCS), a community-based organization dedicated to restoring San Francisco communities, along with The San Francisco Community Land Trust (SFCLT), which strives to provide strategies for stabilizing lower-income communities in San Francisco, offered to buy the Fillmore property back in order for Marcus Books to keep operating on the site. The SFCLT was approached by the Marcus Books campaign committee to help plan a way to buy the property back.

WCS put up a $1.65 million loan, leaving SFCLT to raise an additional $1 million. One of the methods they used was “crowd-investing,” encouraging contributions from private individual investors. Tracy Parent, organizational director of SFCLT, believes helping Marcus Bookstore is the perfect example of their mission.

“Resident members and general members have a vote in the Land Trust to ensure the assets continue to serve the community,” Parent said. “This is a form of shared ownership and stewardship of community assets. Our primary mission is to create permanently affordable housing for low and moderate-income people, and this historic building has two large flats upstairs that can be preserved as permanently affordable family-size apartments, with three and four bedrooms, which are very hard to find in San Francisco.”

Sheppard concluded: “I got involved with Marcus Books because my mother bought a book from the store that she later used to pick my name. When I heard it was in trouble, I wanted to help because the store closing would be so detrimental to San Francisco’s culture. We already have large waves of gentrification impacting the city’s landscape so the threat of losing another historical business was the last straw for me. I think students, especially those from outside of the state, should find this important because the city that houses our university is experiencing a sort of class war right now. It’s easy to be disconnected from this as a non-native, but ultimately, we all live in San Francisco and it impacts us in one way or another.”

To donate to the Keep It Lit grassroots campaign, visit: http://www.gofundme.com/6bvqlk

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