Marcus Books on the brink of closure 

click to enlarge The Marcus Bookstore building was moved to avoid the razing of the Fillmore District. Now the family that owns the building may lose it because of a bankruptcy. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The Marcus Bookstore building was moved to avoid the razing of the Fillmore District. Now the family that owns the building may lose it because of a bankruptcy.

A bad move on a loan at the height of the boom, a financial crisis in the bust that followed, and finally, foreclosure and bankruptcy forcing a family from its longtime home.

It's happened all over the United States — and now it's happened in San Francisco to the country's oldest black bookstore.

Marcus Books, the Fillmore District institution that's been in the same Victorian at 1712 Fillmore St. since 1960, must move out by June 18, following an April bankruptcy sale that saw the storied building sold for a fraction of what it is likely worth.

When the bookstore leaves the three-story building — trucked there from Laguna Street after it was saved from the Redevelopment Agency wrecking ball that leveled most of the Western Addition — it also means the family that owns it must leave the two upstairs flats.

That is, unless the new owners can be convinced — by the NAACP, by housing activists, by the neighborhood, and by The City — to sell to a neighborhood-based nonprofit that's offering them a modest profit on their deal, as well as the chance to be saviors to a pillar of black community in San Francisco.

"We're not asking for a handout," said Gregory Johnson, who with his wife, Karen run the bookstore. "It would be one thing if we didn't have the money," Karen Johnson added, as they sat in the bookstore's incense-scented ground-floor space, indoor plants adding to the cool refuge from an unseasonably hot afternoon. "But we do. We have the money and The City behind us."

The trouble at Marcus Books began in 2006. Like so many other people during the real estate boom, the family took out a loan in order to pay expenses, Karen Johnson said during an interview at the bookstore Friday.

And like so many others, the loan — $950,000, with fixed monthly payments but a high 10 percent interest rate — turned out to be "predatory," she said. Monthly payments on the building ballooned to about $10,000, according to Dr. Mary Ann Jones, executive director of Westside Community Services.

The family has contacted the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, which is investigating the loan's legitimacy, according to attorney Julian Davis. But in the meantime, a last-minute effort by the Johnsons to buy the property from creditors missed a deadline.

The building was sold off in bankruptcy court to real estate investors who own a taxicab company and specialize in finding distressed properties for investment opportunities.

The closing of the oldest continuously running black bookstore in the country would be just part of the loss to the community. Dr. Raye Richardson, who is 93 and still lives in the home, and her late husband, Dr. Julian Richardson, who died in 2000, were longtime San Francisco State University professors who were pillars of the Fillmore. A new senior housing complex on Fulton and Gough streets was named after them.

And if the bookstore goes, it will be yet another longtime black-owned business falling victim to a changing landscape. The the nearby Chicago Barbershop also closed suddenly, in April.

The bookstore is more symbolic. Spirits are fueled by the message in these books, which is that black people have contributed to society intellectually. "Did you know that Buddha was black?" Karen Johnson asks.

"It's one of the only institutions African American people feel comfortable going to," said Dr. Mary Ann Jones, executive director of Westside Community Services, which uses the bookstore's space as a meeting place and a center for mental health and welfare to work services.

Westside has offered to pay the new owners Nishan and Suhaila Sweis $1.64 million for the building, which would be a profit of $50,000 or 3 percent. Sweises paid $1.59 million for the property in April. That price included a $39,750 commission for Suhaila Sweis and about $223,000 for the Richardsons and Johnsons, according to court records.

Jones said that the Sweises are refusing to sell for less that $3.2 million, and that they asked a judge in April to order an eviction.

Nishan and Suhaila Sweis did not respond to a telephone message left at their South San Francisco home.

"I wish I could come up with the money to buy it myself," said Supervisor London Breed, herself a Western Addition native who grew up in public housing and spent "countless" afternoons in the bookstore as a child. "But unfortunately, it's a capitalist society, and it doesn't work like that."

Homes in the area are selling for multiple millions of dollars, according to sales figures. And 1712 Fillmore St. is worth about $2.96 million, according to real estate website

Blanche Richardson, who also lives in upstairs from the bookstore and operates the Oakland location of Marcus Books, declined to be interviewed for this story.

It's unclear what, if anything, The City can do. Officials from the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development have been investigating alternative locations along Fillmore Street for the bookstore to rent and approaching property owners, according to Joaquin Torres, a deputy director at the department. But it does not appear that The City can aid Westside in its efforts to buy the building and keep Marcus Books in its home before the June 18 eviction date.

There is hope that that will not be necessary.

"Maybe," Gregory Johnson said, "the Sweisses might end up the heroes of the story."

All it would take is a sale, and a profit — and "everyone wins," Karen Johnson said. "It sounds good to me."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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