Last chance for Marcus Books, part of SF’s black history

Pub date March 18, 2014


It’s taken decades, but the Mahattanization of San Francisco is nearly complete: The immigrants, artists, and natives who built the City and gave it its unique flavor can no longer afford to live here.

With San Francisco’s African American population largely banished to across the bay, along with the working and artists classes, the freethinking lifestyle that attracted so many people to the Bay Area in the first place has largely been and gone.

“What is crucial, is whether or not the country, the people of the country, the citizenry, is able to recognize that there is no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco, and the facts of life in Birmingham,” James Baldwin said on a fact-finding trip to San Francisco in 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time at which he would have also visited Marcus Books.

If buildings could talk, the Marcus Books property on Fillmore Street, the onetime “Harlem of the West,” would tell a tale of two cities for over 50 years. Once the jazz club Bop City (where John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Billie Holiday performed), the purple Victorian is central to a neighborhood that survived the internment and return of its Japanese American residents, a botched “redevelopment” project that resulted in the permanent displacement of African Americans, and a blueprint for a “Jazz District” that failed to launch.

Now the neighborhood faces a final act as the oldest seller of books “by and about black people” attempts to uphold a part of the history and culture it had a hand in creating, while the City looks away and toward tech as its future.

Every black writer and intellectual in the US knows the store; celebrities, activists, athletes, and literary giants — including Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Walter Mosely, Alice Walker, Oprah Winfrey, and Toni Morrison — have all passed through the doors of the San Francisco or Oakland stores.

Founded by Julian and Raye Richardson in 1960, their store served as a sanctuary for thinkers, authors, and community members during watershed moments, from the Voting Rights Act through the Black Power Movement and historic SFSU student strike in 1968 (resulting in the establishment of multicultural study programs which flourish at universities today).

Many of San Francisco’s African American faith, civic, arts, and culture leaders were educated through the program at State, either by the Richardsons or the books they stocked at Marcus. The Richardson family continues that tradition today at the bookstore, engaging visitors in discussions on the journey from Jim Crow to the first black president .

Yet for the past year, Marcus Books has struggled to survive. Community activists, elected supervisors, and appointed commissioners helped attain landmark status for the historic building, while attorneys brokered a buyback after the property was sold at auction and a fundraising effort was launched in December (see “Marcus Books can stay if it can raise $1 million,” SFBG Politics blog, Dec. 5). To contribute, visit

Marcus is not the only community-serving bookseller forced into crowdfunding and community organizing, diverted from its core mission to enlighten and educate. If a city’s bookstores are any indication of its cultural diversity and intellectual health, San Francisco is on the critical list.

The City’s last gay bookstore, A Different Light, was laid to rest three years ago; while our most progressive political book outlet in the Mission District, Modern Times, is on the brink (see “A Modern tragedy,” Jan. 7). A similar fate for Marcus Books would mean the end to a longstanding black-owned business in the Fillmore.

It seems “The City That Knows How” has forgotten where it came from. Baldwin’s 1963 quote may’ve been specifically about racist ways and laws, but a blow to Marcus Books could mean his message remains the same: San Francisco’s reputation as a kindly city of love, tolerance, and diversity will be forever tarnished; in fact, it may have been false advertising all along.

Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.