If buildings could talk, the Marcus Books property on San Francisco’s 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 structure is central to a neighborhood that has survived the internment and return of its Japanese American residents, an urban renewal project that resulted in the permanent exodus of African Americans when promises for new homes never materialized, and a blueprint for a “Jazz District” that failed to launch. Now, the neighborhood faces a final act as Marcus Books, the oldest seller of books “by and about black people” in the entire US, attempts to uphold black history and culture, a part of which its founders helped create, while the mayor’s office and for-profit developers look instead to the influx of tech companies and their workers as the City’s future.
It’s taken decades, but the Mahattanization of San Francisco is nearly complete: The immigrants, artists and native-born 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 Oakland and points beyond, alongside 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,” said James Baldwin 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.
Every black writer and intellectual in the US and throughout the African Diaspora knows the store; Celebrities, activists, athletes and literary giants, from 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 Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson in 1960, their leadership and the store itself served as sanctuary for thinkers, authors and community members during every watershed of black cultural and political movement, from the Voting Rights Act, through the Black Power Movement and historic student strike at SF State in 1968 (resulting in the establishment of multicultural study programs which still exist 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 themselves or the books they stocked at Marcus; 50 years later, the Richardsons’ daughter, granddaughter and extended family remain in San Francisco, providing black children with their very first books, as well as a safe community space where elders and organizers may engage in discussions on their journeys, from Jim Crow to the first black president. Yet for the past year, Marcus Books, one of those rare brick and mortar stores that operates in the black, has been waging a program for its own survival: The City’s community activists, elected supervisors and appointed commissioners achieved landmark status for the historic building, attorneys brokered a buyback after the property was sold at auction, and the store’s fund drive with a deadline at the end of Black History month is in its final stretch. But Marcus is not the only community-serving destination that’s been 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. With City Lights the only vestige of the town’s Beat Generation past, the City’s last gay bookstore was laid to rest three years ago; it’s most progressive political book outlet in the Mission District is on the brink. A similar fate for Marcus Books would mean the end to longstanding black-owned businesses in the Fillmore, the so-called “heart and soul of the city,” a neighborhood once so diverse it was dubbed the “Little United Nations.” Seems The City That Knows How has forgotten where it came from and San Francisco is no longer the most progressive place on earth. Baldwin’s 1963 quote may’ve been specifically about Jim Crow ways and law, 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.
Marcus Books will be holding a hackathon on Saturday afternoon in San Francisco.