Country’s oldest black bookstore evicted 

click to enlarge Marcus Books
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • A visitor reads an eviction notice Thursday posted to the front of Marcus Books on Fillmore Street. The building owner posted the notice, dated Tuesday, for nonpayment of rent.

For more than half a century, Marcus Books has been a center of black San Francisco's intellectual and cultural life.

From its beginnings as a print shop, bookstore and organizing center on McAllister Street in 1960, the store -- named after the father of black nationalism, Marcus Garvey -- has held a unique place in The City's black community.

Supervisor London Breed got her copy of the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" there when she walked into the store as a teen. Champion wrestler Carlos Levexier read about the African roots of wrestling there. And myriad others learned about black culture, history and politics within the store's walls.

Now that history may have come to an end. And for many, it is just one more blow to a community quickly disappearing from a city that has done too little to welcome black residents or try to keep them from leaving.

The store was shuttered Tuesday by the Fillmore Street building owner after rent fell into arrears.

"The current property owner has changed the locks to the door of 1712 Fillmore St.," said an open letter written by the store's co-owners Karen and Greg Johnson.

"With the numerous speeches of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee stating his commitment to righting the wrongs of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's slaughter of the thriving African American Fillmore District, we at Marcus Books believed the City would take some affirmative action on our behalf, since Marcus Books is the only surviving Black Business since the Redevelopment devastation," they noted in the letter, referring to the area's drastic redevelopment in the late 1960 and 1970s, which resulted in the virtual destruction of the once-thriving community.

The Johnson family and the store's supporters have long been fighting to keep the oldest black bookstore in America open. The bookstore has made numerous efforts to fight its eviction, including an application for historical landmark status and a fundraiser to buy back the Victorian building that is its home.

The Board of Supervisors even designated Marcus Books' location as a city landmark, but a fundraising effort fell $750,000 short in February.

"For me, it was almost the last evidence that African-Americans have a significant existence in San Francisco," said Breed, who represents the district. She recalls being given the book about Malcolm X in the shop as a teen because she didn't have enough money to pay for it.

"I had heard about Malcom X and I wanted to get his autobiography. I didn't have enough money for the book, but someone at the store said, 'Just pay me when you can.' And I was like, 'What, you trust me? I can't believe these folks trust me.'" Eventually, she said, she paid them back.

Marcus Books was opened as Success Book Store by Julian and Raye Richardson at Fillmore and Sutter streets, said their daughter and current owner Karen Johnson. It was a meeting place, a reading room and even a center of organizing from the outset. At one point it was the location of Malcom X School. During protests at San Francisco State University, the Richardsons paid the bail for more than 100 arrested students by putting up their home as collateral. In 1966 it was one of 400 black businesses displaced on Fillmore Street by redevelopment.

"It's devastating," said San Francisco Bayview newspaper editor Mary Ratcliff about the store's closure. "It's a sign of how little San Francisco values its black heritage. This was the most prominent example of that heritage and The City could easily have rescued it."

Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco NAACP chapter, sees the bookstore's closure as another chapter in the poor treatment of black people in California and San Francisco.

"You can't deal with this bookstore without dealing with the bigger sickness," he said. "So, you can't deal with Marcus alone without looking at the conditions, the public policy, that created the conditions for the black community to be torn asunder."

Author Ishmael Reed, who lives in Oakland, where the store has another location, told The San Francisco Examiner that Marcus Books is an irreplaceable institution not only for the books it provided, but also said its loss in The City is a reminder that the struggle for black equality is not over.

"This is a blow to some of us who depend upon Marcus for books that can't be found elsewhere," he said. "It can also be blamed on the post-race mass delusion that the oppression of blacks is an 'old fight.' ... Add to that a recession that's hit blacks harder than others as a result of discrimination from the banks, leaving little over for the purchase of cultural products."

- Kate Conger contributed to this report.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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