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‘We are refusing to let Marcus Books close’

IT HAD BEEN WHISPERED on the street for weeks: The venerable New Chicago Barbershop had closed and another black Fillmore institution, Marcus Books, would soon be closing, too.

Roots run deep for both the bookstore and its building. Before the historic lavender Victorian at 1715 Fillmore that houses Marcus Books was moved from its original location a few blocks away at 1690 Post, it was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, a legendary after-hours joint that features prominently in the neighborhood’s jazz legacy. Before that — before neighborhood residents of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II — the building had housed the Nippon Drug Co. in the heart of Japantown.

“Perhaps no other structure in San Francisco has such an extraordinary story,” the Chronicle reported in a splashy feature story in mid-May. But the article did not mention that the building had changed hands at a bankruptcy sale a few weeks earlier, and that its street-level tenant, the oldest black bookstore in the country, was endangered.

That story went public on Sunday, June 9, when the front page of the Examiner proclaimed “Closing Chapter” and a headline inside reported: “Marcus Books on brink of closure.”

The next day a phalanx of black leaders assembled at Marcus Books before a group of reporters and television cameras to decry the events that had endangered the bookstore.

“Complicity!” thundered Rev. Amos Brown, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He inveighed against redevelopment, city government and predatory lending. “Save the day,” he said, so that “we will have still in San Francisco a place for black folks.”

Supervisor London Breed recalled that she bought her first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, at the store.

“To lose an institution like the Marcus Books store is really the most devastating thing that could happen to African Americans,” she said. “When African Americans were enslaved, we could not read. It was against the law to teach African Americans to read.”

Archbishop Franz King of the St. John Coltrane Church emphasized the building’s link to the neighborhood’s history as the Harlem of the West.

“John Coltrane played in this building,” he said. “Duke Ellington played in this building. This building is more than just a learning institution. This is where we can come to commune with those spirits that talked about music as an instrument that can change the thinking of the people.”

Attorney Julian Davis had worked with the group to come up with a plan to save the bookstore. He put together an offer to buy back the building from real estate investors Nishan and Suhaila Sweis for the $1.6 million they had paid a few weeks earlier, plus a $50,000 profit.

“We are appealing to the people who bought this building at a bargain-basement price,” said supervisor Breed. “It’s worth more to us than just money. It’s our history. It’s our culture. It’s who we are as a people.”

Photographs of Marcus Books by Susie Biehler

Photographs of Marcus Books by Susie Biehler

The money would come from Westside Community Services, a neighborhood nonprofit that uses the bookstore as a place to provide outreach for its services.

“This is one of our last great institutions here,” said Mary Ann Jones, who heads Westside. “Many people come to us because we have support services here. To lose this institution would devastate our community.”

Jones recalled that her mother, neighborhood activist Helen Jones, had helped save the building when it was caught in the cross-hairs of redevelopment in the 1960s.

“My mother laid down in front of this building the first time they tried to bulldoze it,” she said. “I think that our ancestors are looking down upon us and asking us to do something.”

The legal issues surrounding the sale of the building are both simple and complex. The building had been owned for many years by members of the family of Julian and Raye Richardson, professors at San Francisco State who founded Marcus Books in 1960. Matriarch Raye Richardson, now 93, until recently lived upstairs in one of the flats with her daughter Blanche Richardson, who operates a branch of Marcus Books in Oakland. The other flat is occupied by her daughter Karen Johnson, who with her husband Greg Johnson operates Marcus Books on Fillmore.

The family took out a $950,000 loan on the building in 2006, in the frenzy of the real estate boom, and payments had ballooned to about $10,000 a month by 2009. The threat of foreclosure hung over the building.

Things came to a head when Blanche Richardson declared bankruptcy. The Johnsons had 60 days to buy out her interest the building. When they did not come up with the money in time, the building was sold at a bankruptcy auction to the Sweises for $1.64 million.

The Johnsons then had 60 days after the close of escrow on April 19 to vacate the building. By the June 19 deadline to vacate, their new attorney, Julian Davis, had put together the offer to re-purchase the building for the sale price, plus a $50,000 profit.

He conveyed the offer to the attorney for the new owners, S. Seth Kershaw of Last and Faoro in San Mateo, but was told the price was now $3.2 million — twice what they had paid.

When the family did not vacate the building, Kershaw asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Dennis Montali to evict them. Montali denied the motion. Neither Marcus Books nor Karen and Greg Johnson are in bankruptcy.

While Davis was pursuing a legal resolution, supporters of the bookstore made good on their vow to fight to save the bookstore.

“When folks begin to attack our cultural institutions, they attack our very existence here in San Francisco,” said Ed Donaldson, a housing activist with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment. “We cannot tolerate it. We have to stand up and fight.”

Marcus Books is a resource center for San Francisco's black community.

Marcus Books is a resource center for San Francisco’s black community.

Archbishop King of the St. John Coltrane Church is also active in the alliance. “We are refusing to let Marcus Books close,” King said. “The Sweises see this building as a profit to turn. We see what they’re doing as a destruction of the African American community.”

So the alliance began turning up the heat on the new owners to sell back the building they bought just two months earlier. More than 16,000 people have signed an online petition backing the bookstore.

On Sunday, June 16, several dozen supporters of the bookstore went to the Sweises’ church, the St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church in Diamond Heights, where the Sweises are deacon and sub-deacon. They took along signs that read: “Pray the Sweises do the right thing: Save Marcus Books.”

“We expect more from people who are deacon and sub-deacon at a church,” said Gail Meadows, one of the bookstore’s supporters who went to their church.

On July 2, a group of about two dozen supporters went to the Sweises’ neighborhood in South San Francisco to knock on their neighbors’ doors and leave flyers.

“The way many people see this is if the Johnsons and their supporters are not comfortable in their home, why should the Sweises be?” said Donaldson.

Bookstore backers have also called for a boycott and an investigation of two cab companies, Royal and Big Dog, owned by the Sweis family.

“They’re not happy about the community action,” said Davis, the attorney for Marcus Books. “They’re pissed off. We don’t know if they’ll dig in or feel the pressure.”

He added: “At this point they’d have to formally evict the Johnsons, and that could take some time — especially in San Francisco. Are they going to want to do that — to keep going down this long road? Or say screw it, we’ll take a modest profit and keep everyone happy.”

For their part, neither the Sweises nor their attorney have had any public comment about the issue.

Co-owner Karen Johnson talks with a customer at the counter of Marcus Books.

Co-owner Karen Johnson talks with a customer at the counter of Marcus Books.

Back on Fillmore Street, Karen Johnson is at her usual post at the front of Marcus Books.

“It’s getting to be more promising,” she said. “It really makes me feel good that everyone is speaking some truth that they’ve been touched by this place. I’ve been touched by this place, too. I’m just the clerk where people come in to dip from the lake of black wisdom.”