Marcus Books seeks landmark status to help avoid closure 

click to enlarge Marcus Book Store has been a fixture in the Fillmore district of San Francisco since 1960, and it's the oldest black bookstore in America. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Marcus Book Store has been a fixture in the Fillmore district of San Francisco since 1960, and it's the oldest black bookstore in America.

The effort to save a black bookstore in the historically black Fillmore district has entered a new chapter, as the Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday considered designating the site of the Marcus Book Store a landmark.

Part of the fabric of the neighborhood since 1960 and the nation's oldest black bookstore, Marcus Books moved to 1712 Fillmore St. in 1980 after activists saved it from bulldozing during the Fillmore's redevelopment period. Many black-owned businesses were lost during that time.

But the question now is more than just about recognizing the store's historical importance — will it even be able to stay in its current location?

An alleged predatory loan drove part-owner Blanche Richardson into bankruptcy in 2006, forcing husband and wife Gregory and Karen Johnson to try to raise enough money to recover that share. They managed to find an investor, Westside Community Services, but not in time.

"They were a day late but not a dollar short," said the couple's attorney, Julian Davis.

The property was bought by real estate investors Nishan and Suhaila Sweis, and they don't want Marcus Books to stay.

Historical designation could give the bookstore "some leverage" in negotiations with the new owners, Davis said.

"I know that a lot of property owners don't like to have landmark status because it limits what they can do with it," he said.

Those limits include that certain architectural features, the facade and other visual elements of the old Victorian would have restrictions on changes.

Though it would create leverage, the landmark status doesn't guarantee that Marcus Books would stay, Davis said.

Any help would be useful though, he said, as negotiations with the Sweis family are "at a standstill."

Calls to the Sweises' attorney were not returned.

The preservation commission ultimately decided to table the decision on Marcus Books until Aug. 21.

Notably, the commission has been tinkering with the decision since June 2011, according to its agenda documentation.

Commission Vice President Andrew Wolfram explained at Wednesday's meeting that the public may get confused as to why the commission makes certain decisions at certain times, and that it's good to group certain building types, such as Victorians, together for consideration.

Owner Karen Johnson said that giving Marcus Books landmark status is ultimately a choice between two beliefs.

"If we value black contributions to civilization, it makes sense," she said. "If we don't value them, it doesn't."

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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