Saturday, February 22, 2014

America’s Oldest Black Bookstore Could Lose Its Home

by Manjula Martin)

When Raye and Julian Richardson started selling books to friends out of their print shop in 1960, they were founding the first black bookstore in San Francisco. Since 1981, Marcus Books has been housed in a tiny storefront on the street level of an unmistakably San Franciscan purple Victorian house on Fillmore Street. Now the oldest continuously open black bookstore in the nation, Marcus Books is run by the Richardson’s grandchildren, Karen and Gregory Johnson, and staffed by assorted family members. But the bookstore and the community it serves are scrambling to stay in the Fillmore as a multiyear eviction drama threatens to displace them from their building. To keep its home, the store needs to raise a million dollars. In one month.

Marcus Book Stores (the original Fillmore location has a sister store in Oakland) sells books by and about black people. Over the decades it has hosted such authors as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, musicians including John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, and events designed to support a “legacy of consciousness, strength, and creativity” in the black community.

Before it was home to the bookstore, the building at 1712 Fillmore had an epic history. It once housed legendary Fillmore jazz club Jimbo’s Bop City, and narrowly missed being torn down in the 1960s urban redevelopment fiasco that razed most of San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. In the 1970s, the three-story building was moved, intact, two blocks from its previous location to where it now stands. But this year, if the Johnsons can’t raise the money to stay in the Victorian (which is also their home), Marcus Books could go the way of Jimbo’s and countless other neighborhood landmarks.

While the prospect of a beloved independent bookstore’s closing is hardly new, it’s actually against trend at the moment; the American Booksellers Association reported indie bookstore sales were up almost 8% in 2012. But Marcus Books happens to sit at the intersection of several concurrent crises: the ongoing need for independent bookstores to diversify their income sources and compete with online retailers; a steep rise in evictions and housing costs in San Francisco hastened by the influx of monied tech gold rushers; and the predatory loan practices that dominoed into the 2008 economic crash.
The store’s customer base is also shrinking, and, along with it, the black literary and artistic community that Marcus stokes. The 2009 census revealed that San Francisco’s African-American population had decreased by 40% since 1990. Rapid gentrification shows no signs of slowing in the previously middle- and working-class African-American and Japanese-American neighborhood once nicknamed “the Harlem of the West.”

The chain of events that led Marcus Books to this point of impermanence is long and often confusing, as are most eviction stories. The Johnsons say they fell victim to a predatory loan in 2006 and eventually lost ownership, with the building sold at bankruptcy court in 2013. Marcus Books — along with community groups, the NAACP, local housing activists, and civic leaders — rallied to stop the subsequent eviction of the store, hoping the new owners would recognize the store’s historical importance and allow the Johnsons to buy the building back for only slightly more than its auction price. But the new owners refused, asking for the building’s full market value. And that’s just the basics of the situation. The past year has seen what feels like a perpetual state of emergency — rallies, meetings, city hall sessions — for those involved in efforts to keep Marcus Books in its home.

What’s very clear is what the store’s supporters need to do now. In January 2014, a deal struck with the new owners allows the Johnsons to repurchase the building. The catch? They need to raise the fair market value: $2.6 million. The Johnsons already have $1.6 million in assistance offered from a local nonprofit. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day they launched a crowdfunding campaign that seeks to raise the additional funds through a combination of private investors and individual donors. They have until the end of February 2014 to raise a million dollars. In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the store.

Photographer Lydia Daniller and I stopped by in early January to document Marcus Books at a time when its future is uncertain.

Despite its sunny exterior, the inside of the bookstore doesn’t exactly glow the way one might expect of a place that bills itself as the intellectual heart of a community. Marcus Books is small, and has the low headspace of a ground-floor apartment. Old carpets cover the cold floor, and the fluorescent lighting on the paneled ceilings is more reminiscent of an office than a nostalgic home of great literature. But spend a few hours inside, and the store’s personality begins to emerge.

Children might outnumber adults in the room. The dog, Sunny, might leave its spot by the space heater to socialize. Whenever the front door opens, a wind chime rings out, and greetings are always exchanged. Whenever a customer asks a question, it’s answered, whether the query is from a customer looking for a specific title or a passerby looking for the name of a new Jamaican restaurant that’s supposed to be somewhere near here.

At Marcus, the books for sale are mostly faced outward, and are shelved in no easily discernible order. Stock looks a bit scarce. Sections appear nonexistent. At the register, a young man talks with the only visible staffer, Carlos Levexier, who helps him look up books that may contain the history of his middle name. “I’ve already researched my last name,” the man explains to Levexier. “But my middle, I don’t know where that’s from.”

Among the books for sale are odd assortments of objects: art, artifacts of black history, plaques and framed photographs of family and celebrities, Swahili guides, stacks of CDs, wall calendars depicting topics that range from the Obamas to beautiful women, random offerings of textile goods. Everything has a thin sheen of dust on it, which conveys not disuse but rather time. History has passed through this place.

If the Johnsons are able to secure the building, Marcus Books will expand its community presence and look for a wider variety of income sources — maybe a café, says Levexier, or a more dedicated music space to pay homage to the musical legacy of the building and the block.

The largest section of the store is devoted to children. A few wide shelves painted in the same violet hue as the building’s exterior hold a slim selection of books — most of them favorites, according to the young browser pictured here.

Word of the store’s situation has spread beyond San Francisco. As Lydia and I hung out in the store, the mailman came in bearing a package wrapped in brown paper and stamped with United Kingdom postal markings. Inside was a tattered 1852 edition of a book by William Wells Brown, a popular memoirist, novelist, and abolitionist who escaped slavery and lived in Europe for several years during the 1850s. A note, bearing only a signature — no return address, no clearly legible name — offered the book to the store as a gift, perhaps as a way to help with its fundraising effort. The collector who sent it had read about Marcus Books on Americana Exchange, a website for rare and antiquarian book collectors.

“That’s good energy, you all being in here and this book coming in,” said Levexier as he showed us the package with the book in it. Now a part of the Johnson family, Levexier used to come to Marcus Books with his mother when he was a kid. “I don’t remember the store, really,” he says, “but I remember my mother’s excitement whenever we were getting ready to come here: ‘We’re gonna go to Marcus Books!’”

The Johnson residence is upstairs, but the entire building bears the telltale marks of family. In the middle of the store, childrens’ heights are tracked on a pole near the area where local groups hold meetings.

As we prepared to leave the store, a girl, about 6 years old, entered the store. She introduced herself as Gina Raye, the granddaughter of the Johnsons and daughter of Levexier. We talked about homework and poetry and Whitney Houston songs. I told her, “We’re taking pictures of your grandma’s store.”
“It’s my store too,” she shot back quickly, full of authority and pride.

Sunny takes a well-earned break.

Click here to learn how you can help save Marcus Books.

Click here to learn more about Scratch Magazine.

All photos by Lydia Daniller / Via

Photographer Lydia Daniller lives in San Francisco and works all over the world. Her photographs have been seen in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, 7×7 magazine, on the covers of MacAdam/Cage books, and in countless wedding albums. Lydia has worked with or shown at YBCA, CounterPULSE, RADAR Productions, Sean Dorsey Dance, and the National Queer Arts Festival. She’s currently at work on a series of portraits of queers and their cats.
Manjula Martin is co-editor of Scratch Magazine. Her work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review online, Modern Farmer, The Rumpus, SF Weekly, and elsewhere. She used to be a bookstore clerk.