Marcus Books celebrates its 50th

Photograph of Marcus Books manager Karen Johnson by Joe Manio

By Tessa Williams

It would be easy to pass by the purple Victorian at 1712 Fillmore without realizing its importance to Bay Area black history.

Located just north of Post Street, the building’s modest presence belies its legacy, both as the former home of Jimbo’s Bop City — the legendary after-hours jazz club — and as the current home of Marcus Books, the oldest independent black bookstore in the country, which is celebrating half a century in business this year.

Back in 1960, Raye and Julian Richardson recognized a need for the African-American community to have an establishment devoted to selling and promoting books written by black people that dealt with the black experience. They opened the store in their Leavenworth Street print shop that year, and it quickly became an important cultural center and gathering place. A second location was opened in Oakland in the mid-70s, and the San Francisco store settled into its current location on Fillmore in 1980.

It was logical to locate in the Fillmore, a neighborhood with a long history as a bastion of black-owned businesses and African-American artistic contribution. During the height of the Fillmore jazz era, Jimbo’s Bop City hosted the likes of Count Basie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald.

In the ’60s, Marcus Books was a meeting place for the Black Panthers and other activist groups, and one of the first business establishments in San Francisco to host regular book clubs and poetry slams.

For 50 years, Marcus Books has been very much a family affair. After Julian Richardson died in 2000, Raye Richardson took over as the sole owner. She lives one floor above the Fillmore shop with her daughter, Blanche Richardson, a book editor and the manager of Marcus Books’ outpost in Oakland. Blanche’s daughter, Cherysse, also helps run the Oakland store.

Karen Johnson, another of Raye and Julian Richardson’s four children, lives on the third floor with her husband Gregory. Karen and her daughter, Tamiko Johnson, manage Marcus Books in San Francisco, and Gregory has been involved with running the store since retiring as a hospital administrator in 2005.

Over five decades, the family has witnessed much activity at their bookstores. An astonishingly long list of writers, thinkers, actors and luminaries have appeared there — from Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Cornel West and August Wilson to Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, B.B. King and Dave Chappelle.
“Authors want to be here,” said Gregory Johnson. “It’s an honor to be at Marcus Books.”

Marcus Books is commemorating half a century of bookselling by sponsoring several community events celebrating African-American contributions to American culture. Later in the year, it will host a Motown celebration with a showcase at the Fillmore Auditorium, and has also planned a poetry competition.

It recently began the Scholar Book Fund, a literacy and educational program that pairs young black students with mentors from Public Allies, the Americorps-affiliated organization of community activists and volunteers. The program is designed to promote reading and a commitment to education and to give students “the preparation to go through the educational system and achieve the goals of life,” Gregory said.
Celebrating 50 years in business in such a way is in keeping with the store’s founding principles. “It goes back to the vision of Raye and Julian Richardson,” said Gregory, “who gave their entire hearts to the community.”

Marcus Books’ status as a cultural institution and a cornerstone of the community has not, unfortunately, made it immune to the hardships that other independently owned local bookstores have suffered during the last several years. The rise of online booksellers and chain bookstores have changed the bookselling landscape profoundly — a serious problem for those who value bookstores for not only the products they sell but also the sense of community they create. Marcus has been adapting to these changes by developing Marcus Books Social Network, an online community that fosters lively discussions about books and issues affecting African-Americans, which will soon feature a system for purchasing books through the network.

More than the bookselling landscape has been altered in the last several years: The Fillmore itself has undergone significant changes. “We’ve seen the vibrant African-American community migrate out because of a lack of affordable housing and jobs,” Gregory said. “But this is a great place to live — with small boutique businesses, parks, theatres and jazz music. Where else can you go on the Fourth of July and see thousands of people listening to jazz?”

The annual Fillmore Jazz Festival draws throngs of revelers to the street, but the show that takes place in front of Marcus Books each year is special. Many bands gather in front of the store to play, and scores of music-lovers congregate to watch. “The musical history of the store draws musicians,” said Karen Johnson.

The Richardsons recently received word that the Fillmore building housing Marcus Books will be designated a cultural landmark by the National Register of Historical Sites.

“We have great support here in the community, which we attribute to an unquenchable thirst for books by and about black people,” Gregory Johnson said. “We love it here. And our intent is to be part of the landscape of the community for the next 50 years — and beyond.”

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