Bookselling is entwined with the identity of a bookstore. Frequent
visitors, the browsers and customers, are also extensions of a
bookstore's identity. Marcus Books survives because every day it
fulfills peoples' needs; this is a place that provides nourishment. A
family-run community space, Marcus Books dedicates itself to Black
communities in San Francisco and Oakland by stocking books written by
Black authors, historical books about Africa and African-Americans,
and books that cannot be found elsewhere. Most importantly, when
stopping in to Marcus Books you will find booksellers who are
descendants of Drs. Raye and the late Julian Richardson, the great
minds behind this community pillar. I spoke to Blanche Richardson,
who runs the Oakland location of Marcus Books.
Is there a mission statement for Marcus Books?
To provide a resource for the community for books by and about Black
people everywhere. It is essential that all cultures have a place
where they can access information about themselves -- their history,
their culture, their unique issues, their political and social
standing in the greater society, and a place where children have
access to books that show them in a positive light.
What is the history of Marcus Books?
My parents originally opened a printing business in the Fillmore
District of San Francisco -- Success Printing. Then they began to
publish works by Black authors and poets as well as out-of-print
literature they deemed essential reading, such as The Philosophy and
Opinions of Marcus Garvey and Stolen Legacy by George G.M. James. In
1960, they began selling books out of the printing storefront. When
the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency began "redeveloping" Blacks
out of San Francisco, devastating the self-contained and vibrant
Fillmore District, many Black families moved to the East Bay and my
parents opened a second store in Oakland in 1976.
Why did your parents decide to open Marcus Books in 1960?
They shared a love of reading Black books and found them difficult to
find and purchase. They realized that for a Black community to be
progressive, it must have its own bookstore as a source of
information about itself. Marcus Books was established because at the
time there was an appetite for books about Black people. We were
responding to that appetite, that interest.
What is your relationship to Marcus Books? Are you an owner?
The stores were founded by my parents, Drs. Raye and Julian
Richardson who met as teenagers while attending Tuskegee Institute. I
operate the Oakland store with my daughter, Cherysse. My sister,
Karen and her oldest daughter, Tamiko, run the San Francisco store.
My brothers Mac (Julian, Jr.) and Billy took over the printing and
publishing end of the business (which is now located at the Oakland
site). My brother, Mac died in 1999. My father, Julian died in 2000.
Dr. Raye Richardson is the sole owner. My grandchildren and my
sister's grandchildren -- the fourth generation -- also work in the
stores in whatever capacity their ages allow.
What are the differences and the common threads between the San
Francisco and Oakland Marcus Books Stores?
While the stores look vastly different, we carry the same stock. The
client base varies because San Francisco's Black population is down
to about 1.5%, while Oakland's is approximately 40%. Both stores,
however, see a wide range of customers -- young, old, Black, White,
Asian, African, male and female -- who read in every possible genre
of literature. The San Francisco store, situated in what is now
called the Historic Fillmore Jazz District, has quite a bit more foot
traffic than the Oakland store. The Oakland store is more of a
destination stop, but is close to all the major highways and the
rapid transit system. Both stores see many visitors to the Bay Area
who have heard of Marcus Books.
What is the literary climate like for Black readers, artist, and writers now?
It's the same. It would be suicidal not to be. However, now the
interest has expanded beyond an interest in only Black people. Blacks
are now also interested in multi-national, multi-racial issues.
How has Marcus Books intersected with the civil rights movement?
Marcus Books was a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Marcus Books
provided a forum for many Civil Rights and Black Power organizations.
We also provided meeting space for organizations to plan their
strategies -- marches, rallies and the like. Marcus Books was
frequently where people met up after rallies and marches. We also
hosted many authors who were writing about the political scene at the
time. When the Black students and faculty at San Francisco State
University went on strike, our home was put up as collateral to get
them out of jail. My parents were frequent speakers at various
political events. Marcus Books initiated dozens of forums and
seminars on race relationships and the politics of Blackness. Our
family -- sometimes just our family -- picketed every place there was
to picket: hotels, car dealerships, retail businesses, housing developments.
Will you talk about the history of the Black Panther Party in
relation to Marcus Books?
The Black Panther Party was never a part of Marcus Book Stores. We
were separate organizations in tandem with the same need for Black
people to assert themselves, and to defend themselves against the
negativity that was a part of the American culture vis-à-vis Blacks.
Do you have a favorite event, or a few favorite events that have
taken place at Marcus Books?
All events are great that happen at Marcus Books because they are
instructive, informative, exciting and positive. (Nutritious too, if
we serve food!) Authors who have appeared here include Muhammad Ali
(our biggest event in 48 years), Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, B.B.
King, Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah, Randall Robinson, Cornel West,
Michael Eric Dyson, Nikki Giovanni, E. Lynn Harris, Kareem Abdul
Jabbar, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley, and hundreds of others.
How does Marcus Books survive among chain bookstores and online
bookstores like Amazon?
Marginally! That we survived is a testament to some very dedicated
customers who appreciate the value, the warmth, the camaraderie
established by Marcus Book Stores. It has to be very rewarding for a
Black person to walk into a business establishment and not be
subjected to preconceived notions that he or she is a thief.
What is your vision for Marcus Books' future?
In the last four years, 75% of Black bookstores in the country have
had to close their doors. So, our immediate vision is to keep the
doors open. Our long-term vision is to expand the stores to include
cafes and to have a strong online presence. Our future is tied up
with the future for Black people. Black people will always be
interested in positive books about themselves, their own achievement,
accomplishments, views for the future, for themselves, their children
and for the country.
What is your favorite book?
I have read far too much to have "a" favorite book. This is a very
long list -- and growing. My next favorite will be the next book
written by a Black person for the benefit of Black people. The list
includes Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible
Man by Ralph Ellison, Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James,
Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson, Tumbling by Diane
McKinney-Whetstone, Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell,
Tina McElroy Ansa's The Hand I Fan With, Race Matters by Cornel West,
Disappearing Acts by Terry McMillan, Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome by
Joy Leary, Where Did Our Love Go? by Nelson George, They Came Before
Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and
dozens of other titles -- including many children's books.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently re-reading – for the second time in three months --
the magnificent novel by James (The Color of Water) McBride -- Song
Yet Sung. It's brilliant! I am also re-reading Rediscovering Our
African Heritage by Basil Davidson which was one of the first books
that put black people in a positive historical light. I'm also
reading the 20th anniversary edition of Iyanla Vanzant's Tapping the
Power Within and Robert Greer's new mystery, Blackbird Farewell.