Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Stolen Legacy of Marcus Books Must Be Returned To Owners & The Community

In February: Mayor Ed Lee (center) of San Francisco signs the historic landmark designation for 1712-1716 Fillmore Street, former home of Marcus Books and Greg and Karen Johnson (also pictured).

Since the May eviction of Marcus Books in San Francisco, the speculators who purchased the property have waged a hateful campaign against the historic, landmarked Jimbo’s Bop City building that housed the oldest black bookstore in the US and the Richardson-Johnson family, its longtime proprietors. Theft of valuable store inventory and business tools, destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, displacement of four generations, and most recently a slander campaign against the family who ran the store for 50 years are the contributions made by new owners, the Sweises, to 1712-1716 Fillmore Street. That the City of San Francisco has done little to prevent the attacks, aside from rubber-stamping the building and business as a community and cultural resource with a landmark designation earlier this year, isn’t that surprising: Since the 2009 Mayor’s Task Force Report on African American Out-Migration, few of the recommendations for education, economic development, and cultural and social life have been implemented.  But the City’s negligence and complicity in this recent act of cultural genocide in the black community was so shocking, it must not be allowed to stand unchecked.

The continual and unrestrained despoiling of predominately black and brown neighborhood resources is not a newsflash:  There has been a concerted effort toward black neighborhood “redevelopment” since at least the early ’60s. Certainly evictions overall have been unprecedented on Mayor Ed Lee’s watch, but the way in which the dismantling of the Marcus Bookstore was carried out was particularly aggressive. Small business owners, especially those of color, know well the lack of protections for their tenant and human rights, but the Marcus Books story was under-reported by local media and the details remained largely a mystery to those outside the community until this response by the Johnsons was published on Friday.

In May: Contents of the Marcus Bookstore in process of being dumped and prepared for hauling away.

Following the store’s eviction, the new owners broke several moving dates, then took hostage the store’s books, art work and equipment. Said to be put in storage, to date the materials have not been returned. Community members suspect most all of what was contained in the bookstore—including 50 years of history and ephemera documenting black San Francisco—was either stolen or destroyed, hauled away in a landscaping truck by day workers. That the historic Marcus Bookstore should be physically dismantled in broad daylight as District Supervisors, various commissioners, Mayor’s Office and the NAACP leadership who supported the motion to preserve the property stood by and did nothing to prevent it is the question that remains shamefully unanswered. That passerby were allowed to rifle through the dump truck and take what they liked is simply further evidence of the uncivil and unjust treatment of a community’s history, co-signed by the City.

As a native San Franciscan, an author, and community advocate for the preservation of our most valuable cultural assets—in this case books and literacy—I support the campaign to return the Marcus Bookstore to its Fillmore location. As witness to the community meetings, in store events, Board of Supervisors and Historic Preservation Commission proceedings, and desecration of the property, I have observed and documented with astonishment the trail of broken promises and lies told by District supervisors, Mayor’s Office appointees, and the African American community’s own faith leaders about the bookstore and its proprietors. These erroneous claims–that a bookstore is an unsustainable model for 21st Century business–entirely misses the point. The campaign to support Marcus Books goes beyond keeping open the doors of a mom and pop bookshop: It is an attempt to shine a light on and preserve African American culture, community and literacy, particularly for readers of the future.  The removal of Marcus Books on the block could once and for all to erase the rich cultural heritage African Americans created in San Francisco—through art, music, literature, civic engagement and action and replace it with a whitewashed version of history that does not include black contributions. Further, it negates the interests of the wider community of black and other interested folks who relied on the Marcus Bookstore’s products, services, warmth, and humanity.

In July: The vacant and vulnerable historic landmark at 1712 Fillmore Street.

I am curious how the City officials and employees who reportedly bought their first books at the store, who sat at the owners feet as teenagers and said they were in support of the store can now step back and refuse to take notice or phone calls and deny their previous public statements of support. But I’m not surprised that the landmarking of Marcus Books was insincere and just another photo op: The City’s allegiance to money and power is well known: Given an opportunity, I can imagine Mayor Lee selling his own ancestors down the river. Expecting him and his regime to understand the struggle waged by Marcus Books as a cultural one was a non-starter from the gate. But there is no doubt Lee and Co. failed to “Provide full support of the Fillmore Jazz Heritage District and to make sure that African American culture is fully respected and highlighted in the effort” according to Out-migration Report recommendations.

Despite the setbacks, the original owners of 1712 Fillmore and its family of supporters continue to fight injustice in their community and reclaim justice for all. We have not heard the last from the Marcus Bookstore.

 

If you are interested in expressing support and solidarity with the owners of Marcus Books San Francisco, please contact the Support Marcus Books site directly. If you are a bookseller, author, or publishing professional interested in joining a new alliance of Bay Area independent bookstores, please contact keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you will be added to an email list.

Advertisements

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Civil Rights, Editorial, Jazz, new article, , , , ,

Marcus Books: Keep It Lit in the Fillmore District

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.

Donate directly to Marcus Books 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Jazz, Malcolm X, new article, San Francisco News, , ,

Update: Free Marcus Books

UnknownMarcus Books and its supporters won a small victory in the ongoing fight to save the store when this week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the preservation of the historic building.  In business for over 50 years, Marcus is America’s oldest black-owned bookstore and a San Francisco literary institution that’s hosted James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison, among countless other writers and thinkers; it is a huge part of the City’s African American heritage. Before it became a bookstore, the Victorian building originally located on Post Street was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, the legendary Fillmore District club that staged Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, among other jazz giants. The resolution put forth by Supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen, and supported by Supervisors of all districts, urges the new owners of the property to “uphold the building’s community serving purpose.”

At a rally and press conference Tuesday afternoon, hours before the resolution was passed, about 100 community and church leaders, as well as activists, artists and supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall (never mind the persistent sound of horns you will hear in this clip—in a separate but related issue, cab drivers were protesting the rogue transportation companies that have taken over the roadways in the face of SF’s latest tech boom).

“Tell everyone you know who loves truth and justice and tell them to get involved,” said Archibishop Franzo King of Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The Fillmore has historically been the scene of systematic removal of it residents, whether the internment of Japanese Americans in the ‘40s or the ‘50s and ‘60s relocation of its African American dwellers who were promised housing that never materialized. After a decades-long, so-called redevelopment project (which is now widely and finally acknowledged at the city government level as a failed undertaking), the Fillmore has rebuilt and rebooted more than once, but the well-documented exodus of middle to low-income people of color, and the working and artist classes from throughout San Francisco continues unabated. To state the  plainly obvious, unlike buildings, people cannot be replaced.

“This isn’t just about the bookstore,” said Marcus Books owner Greg Johnson.  “It’s about humanity.”

“This is about transfer of wealth, out of the hands of working class black folk…” said Rev. Arnold Townsend, Vice President of the local NAACP, at Tuesday’s press conference.

Most all of the speakers noted the persistent effort to save Marcus Books goes beyond highlighting the failing of brick and mortar book stores in the 21st Century; it touches realms of historical preservation of culture and ideas, and bores straight into matters regarding maintenance of a community hub. Literacy, education, and generally freely traded  knowledge of self and others are also at stake.

“When we lose our artists, we lose our stories,” said Tony Robles of grassroots arts organization, POOR Magazine.

“I would not be where I am without this book store,” stated devorah major, author, educator, and a San Francisco poet laureate.

The Marcus situation is sadly indicative of the changing demographics of the so-called sanctuary City of St. Francis, “with its widely advertised liberal and cosmopolitan tradition.”   But San Francisco’s track record with its African American population is not good, a contradiction that did not escape the notice of James Baldwin who participated in a film specially broadcast on public television station KQED in 1963.  I recommend the entire series of clips that follow from Take This Hammer.  And I especially commend San Francisco’s elected officials for taking the matter of Marcus Books and the larger problems it represents with the seriousness it demands.

For updates on the effort to Support  Marcus Books,  visit the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

Filed under: Books, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, video, , , , ,

Free Marcus Books

June 2013

Western San Francisco, June 2013

GOOD OL’ USA–June has been quite a month so far:  Bradley Manning’s trial kick-off was the first troubling thing, while jury selection for the George Zimmerman case must’ve been way more than just troubling for the family of Trayvon Martin. For those strung out on the injustice of the young man’s  killing in 2012, it is post-traumatic revisitation time.  Then there was the terrible mass shooting in Santa Monica. Just as my heart broke in two, thinking of friends and old neighbors we’d left behind there, we got the news (?) the N.S.A. is surveilling just plain folks on the regular. I thought we knew this already and so I just figure time is going backwards now. Incidentally, while all this was going down,  I saw a defaced billboard/piece of street art that seemed to fit the mood ’round these parts.

“I have so much trouble on my mind,” I told my husband, not even counting the day to day personal challenges of survival.  “I know,”  he said, though at least we could laugh at me quoting Chuck D accidentally without irony. Meanwhile, a national historic landmark, located in San Francisco, was moving into jeopardy.

The Richardson-Johnson family,  proprietors of the Marcus Book Store in the Fillmoreslider-2 district, have been on a course of change for over 50 years here and have survived those changes royally. Founders Julian and Raye Richardson were directly invested in the struggle for civil rights and equality, first with their Success printing company, followed by the opening of their bookstore.  To cite just one example: During the historic student strike at SF State in 1968, they used their home as collateral, to pay the bail for those arrested in the demonstration. They also printed the student paper when no one else would touch it. The result of the student action, by the way, are today’s multicultural studies departments and diversity programs  enjoyed on college campuses from here to Timbuktu (and when I say Timbuktu I do mean Timbuktu, quite literally).

Marcus Books, named after Marcus Garvey, specializes in books about Africa and African Americans, books by and about black people, among other things.  The authors they’ve hosted are those great writers, thinkers, poets, and humanitarians of the 2oth Century: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Ishmael Reed, and those are just a few of them. Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Wanda Coleman, Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Walter Mosely and Oprah Winfrey have also passed through the doors at one of their two locations (the other is in Oakland). In San Francisco, the purple building stands near the corner of Post,  at the former location of Jimbo’s Bop City, the Fillmore’s premier jazz spot, back in the day.  I mention all this on the first day of what I expect will be a long hot summer here in our chilly little town, because some of us are concerned about such things. Yes, it’s for some of the usual reasons small businesses and booksellers have been struggling in the Amazonian jungle for a decade, exacerbated by the economy’s mess, but the wages of income disparity have also come to bear, the way it makes some people in town go boom while the rest of us go bust are also mixed up in it. You can read more about the store’s situation; as these circumstances do not resolve overnight, the fight to save Marcus Books has really only just begun.

As a native daughter of western San Francisco, I’ve recently returned home following some years in Atlanta, Los Angeles and on another side of town, and Marcus Books has since became my new favorite old place here. There are only a handful of places like that here, where I find it harder and harder to recognize the people and places I used to know as uniquely San Francisco. But some of what I remember best about our town’s openness, and willingness, I re-found at Marcus. There, if you are so inclined, you might talk to Karen Johnson about James Jamerson. Or Charles Mingus, Soul Train and Don Cornelius; Fillmore Street’s jazz heritage, quantum physics, Marvin Gaye and the beginning of all life in Africa. Self-reliance, self-knowledge, the rise and fall of Egypt, astrology, numerology; Harry Belafonte, Smokey and Stevie may come up, depending how you go. I don’t know about you but there aren’t too many places in town where people are conversant in the things I want to talk about and that’s just my own personal reason for wanting Marcus to hang around. The other is that I care about Karen, her family, and of course the general community in the Sucka Free City, served by the book store.

It has been said that the Fillmore is the heart and soul of San Francisco; certainly I have been witness to those flavors at work at Marcus Books in the hands of the Richardson-Johnson family. And because there is hardly any other place on earth I’d rather be than in a friendly neighborhood book or record store, chances are if you’ve read this far, I suspect you feel the same way too. So please, if you will, sign the petition to help Marcus Books, the oldest African American Bookstore in the United States stay around not only to educate the young and curious, the avid reader and casual seeker, but to stand as one of the longest standing community safe places for black authors and black people, and all folks, even those who are white, like me.

A gathering of concerned customers and citizens will convene at the store on Saturday June 22 at noon. Marcus Books is located at 1712 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

Filed under: Book news, Harry Belafonte, income disparity, , , , , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme