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Historic black bookstore on brink of closure

Photo courtesy of Marcus Books

Marcus Books opened in 1959, and quickly became a hub for the neighborhood’s black community. Founders Julian and Raye Richardson believed it was the first African American bookstore in America.

But now, over 50 years later, Marcus Books is struggling to keep from closing its doors. The building where it operated was sold in bankruptcy court after the family who ran it was unable to keep up with ballooning mortgage payments. Yesterday was the store’s eviction date. But advocates are trying to convince the new owners to work with them so the store can stay open and continue helping African American youth feel pride in their culture.

The history of Marcus Books

In the 1960s, black leaders like Malcolm X brought a new consciousness to American race relations, asking African-Americans, “Who taught you to hate yourself? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don't want to be around each other?” And writers such as AmiriBaraka set their perspectives to poetry: “Black art. Poems are bullshit.”

The concept of “Black Power” found deep roots in the Bay Area’s literary world. AmiriBaraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ishmael Reed – as they emerged from the black arts movement, they needed a place to be heard, for their words to be read. That place was Marcus Books, in San Francisco’s Fillmore district – once known as the Harlem of the West.

Karen Johnson, the daughter of the store’s founders, Julian and Raye Richardson, grew up in the Fillmore bookshop. The neighborhood was different then: “The gas station and the pharmacy, and the people who sold the clothes, and the shoes, and everything, and the grocery store, was all black businesses.”

Marcus Books was in line with the voices of the black community, including those of Oakland’s Black Panthers, who gained national prominence with displays of militant social resistance.

Johnson remembers how the Black Panthers would use her parent’s store in the Fillmore as a meeting room.

“Huey Newton would be in the store when I came home from high school,” she said. “And Huey was so handsome. And he was so brave. And my sister and I would come home from school and be like, ‘Oh god, it’s Huey!’ Like we can't even look, we could never even have a conversation with him because we would have been like, ‘Take me.’”

Marcus Books drew prominent African Americans from all over the country, Johnson says.

“Bill Cosby had been here, and Oprah. And one of my favorites, Barry White. I got a hug from Barry White. Mohammad Ali and Rosa Parks, and Chaka Khan. We've had more writers than the whole Harlem Renaissance.”

When the first branch opened, Johnson tells me, their best selling books were by historian J.A. Rogers, who Johnson says is still popular with her customers.

Inside the store, Johnson points out Hip Hop Speaks to Children, an anthology that highlights the use of rhythm and vernacular in hip-hop, rap, and African-American poetry. The artists range from Langston Hughes to Kanye West, to this poem by Langston Hughes.

“Whoa! I want to do that. A little Langston goes a long way,” says Johnson.

While Marcus Books still carries Langston Hughes and J.A. Rogers, it moves a lot more of what’s called urban fiction. This genre includes books like Holy Hustler, Sugar Daddy's Game, and Girls from Da Hood: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Johnson was resistant to carrying urban fiction at first, she realized that young African Americans have a different lifestyle from the people who have shopped at Marcus Books through the earlier years. Her philosophy now is to draw young people in with what they want, and then get them interested in what she thinks they need. Last year, a third of California's African American public school students dropped out of high school. The number of black men in prison is higher than the number enslaved in the United States in 1850.

“If my parents hadn't read that much, I would not have. If they hadn't made me go to the bookstore after school, I would have gotten into some mess. And I don't know if I would be alive today,” says Johnson.

This story originally aired on August 15, 2011.