For the Marcus Bookstore it is now or never

- by Bruce E. McKinney

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The Marcus Book Store sits in the lower Fillmore section of San Francisco at 1712 Fillmore Street, just north of Geary Boulevard that routes traffic east west from the downtown to the affordable neighborhoods where most of the city’s population lives.  Running north-south Fillmore is the old conduit connecting the city’s wealth up the hill to the city’s hip history a scant mile south.  Marcus is located at this crossroads of history and is part of it themselves.  This is their story.

 

This area was once a racial battleground, the blocks south of Geary bulldozed decades ago by determined city planners who left them vacant to force blacks to move elsewhere.  Up the hill, in Pacific Heights, the homes would be protected by increasingly stringent zoning and landmark protection.  From Geary south the community was left to rot for a decade and more.  In the wait and decline most of the black and olive skinned left, some to Hunter’s Point at the south end of the city, others to Oakland, Tracy and Sacramento.  And some remained.

 

In 1960 when the Success Bookstore opened on McAlister Street as a black-owned bookstore specializing in black history the neighborhood south of Geary was mostly black, the outcome of a surge rising from the south and streaming west in the 1940s.  The owners, Julian and Raye Richardson, ran a successful printing company over by city hall.  For them this was a connected venture – an encouragement to read and an encouragement to be involved. 

 

Those arriving in the war years sought new beginnings and brought with them a love of music that would define the area over the next two decades.  For the Success Bookstore, that would change its name to Marcus Books after Marcus Garvey, the inspirational figure for civil rights activists, they and their neighborhood had become part of America’s roiling foment and many of its national leaders came in to talk; James Baldwin, Huey Newton, Jesse Jackson, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seal, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali – to name just a few among the many.  In the San Francisco State student-led strike in 1968 that would lead to the formation of the first African-American Studies program at any university in the United States, when 400 strikers were jailed, the Richardsons provided their bail money and are, these many years later, remembered with the greatest respect for that support. 

 

The 1940 census shows 4,846 black residents in the city, in 1950 43,502, in 1960 74,383.  Blacks settled in many parts of San Francisco but the indelible impression they made was in the lower Fillmore where at their peak more than 20 clubs and juke joints attracted a multi-racial audience for the exceptional music.  The Fillmore became their home.  They didn’t bring much money but brought their skills and sense of community and quickly developed an intense social life built around jazz, and southern cooking.  In some histories the area is called the New Orleans of the west, in others it’s Harlem of the west but the period was simply the Fillmore renaissance and it would be short-lived.

 

In the early 1950s repressors, do-gooders and redevelopers got behind the idea of cleaning up [or out] what was becoming a significant black community in the midst of a city that considered itself white.  These were the final decades of direct racial repression in America that would see Billy clubs used in the south, fire hoses in New York, guns in Chicago and bulldozers in San Francisco to maintain order.  Black communities everywhere experienced discontent and white people were afraid.  Lyndon Johnson pushed through voter rights in 1965 but the stiffening backbones of the resisting majority made enforcement local and problematic.  There would be the Watts race riot in LA in 1965, violence in Hunter’s Point in San Francisco in 1966 and the San Francisco State strike in1968, and across the country in inner cities continuing strife.  This was the decade when Martin Luther King would be killed for speaking truth to power, and Bobby Kennedy, befriending minorities, killed for speaking his mind.  Roosevelt’s new deal and Truman’s fair deal became, in the 1960’s, even with the best intentions of Lyndon Johnson, for minorities the deferred deal.  Washington could legislate but enforcement and implementation were local.                              

 

In San Francisco the agent of forced change was urban renewal and the area immediately south of Geary leveled in the name of urban progress, erasing 400 black businesses and its black inner city, replacing it with most of a square mile of non-threatening empty lots that were only slowly rebuilt - in time becoming affordable housing that to some looked like progress and to others the destruction of their culture.  In belated recompense the business district south of Geary now has plaques and temporarily statues that remember and evoke the not-so-distant past that is otherwise all but invisible.   

 

Over the past forty years the makeup of Fillmore north of Geary, spared the red lining and bulldozing, has been frequently recast as leases expired and landlords raised rents.  Today the mix just a few blocks away from the enforced removals of a half century ago is shades of New York’s 5th Avenue, tony restaurants and personal services such as psychiatrists and manicurists that keep the population close-by comfortable while waiting for stock market reports of further gains.  If life is a sundae the upper Fillmore flowing into Pacific Heights is the cherry.

 

Just north of the Geary divide the Marcus Bookstore remains, as they have now been for more than 30 years at No. 1712, a black bookstore, both by ownership and focus, the revolutionary rhetoric of the confrontational decades now replaced by support for the aspirations of blacks living in a world of uncertain prospects.  They are continuing to do their part and keeping the faith in a changing world.  Their present building, a Victorian, was once Jimbo’s Bop City Club, one of the area’s last jazz joints that in its prime hosted the era’s greatest jazz talent.  This building was moved to its current location when the 1300 block of Fillmore a few steps south was to be razed and concerted community action fought to see it moved to safety over the black-white Geary Boulevard line.

 

And it has worked until now but the days ahead have become clouded.  In these recent months they continue, as they have for decades, juxtaposing their exceptional history with an increasingly mixed future of hope and uncertainty for they, themselves, have become the frailing anchor in the seawall they have supported for fifty years.   They affirm and continue to affirm the strength and capability of black character even as the black way of life recedes in the blocks just south.  This is what they have invested five decades in.  Of their community they speak to them, of them, about them and for them.  And among many with acute historical memory they evoke fierce support.  Marcus has stayed the course, and earned the gratitude of their community, even as their core support has grayed, moved on or away. 

 

They are even, one could argue, out-of-place here today, a part of the Fillmore’s past that has, against all odds, survived.  Fast forward - a year ago their building was foreclosed and new owners stepped in with demands for rents more consistent with current value than with this bookstore’s virtuous past.  These demands are understandable but tone deaf to history.  The problems are many.

 

Marcus is somewhere between a bookstore and a charity but have to pay their bills.  A while back they pledged their deed to gain consistent income but will lose their building as a consequence unless they are able to raise a million dollars over the next two months.  Many are chipping in but it’s a tough sell.  Bookstores are, as a category, unhealthy.  To those with the ears to hear the sounds of foreclosure, the banging of for-rent and for-sale signs hammered into and onto reluctant doorframes is today as loud and common as crickets chirping in July.  The truth is the book business is a bloody cacophony of shifting interests and new forms, many of them better and more efficient.  Its not a moral issue, just what passes for progress and one suspects every receding generation has lamented the decline and loss of what was once useful and familiar.  It’s just that for books and bookstores the changes are so extreme and the process unforgiving.  And for this community heart-breaking because Marcus has been the rare survivor, ducking the bulldozer and keeping the ideas alive that black history and the future of blacks altogether matter. 

 

So we shall see.

 

Just up the hill some of the richest people in America live.  For some a million dollars is a rounding error.  And this is what it’s going to take.  Marcus has kept the hope alive for others.  The community is supportive and the city has shown interest but its probably going to take a major donor to keep their hopes alive.

 

If not, in a year or so there will be a solemn ceremony as another marker is set into the Fillmore sidewalk, this one – Marcus Books – against all odds – for fifty-five years:  1960-2014.

 

Notes on images accompanying this article

 

  1. Julian Richardson 1916-2000.  Of him Mayor Willie Brown said “Julian Richardson was a great man and a great friend to me.”  BEM
  2. The Fillmore District about 1910 [aab-3560] SFPL
  3. The Fillmore District in the 1920’s [aab-3596] SFPL
  4. Fillmore north from Grove Street [aab-3640] SFPL
  5. The Record Exchange at 172 Eddy in 1947 [aac-7331] SFPL
  6. Red Lining the Fillmore in 1954 [aac-1870] SFPL
  7. Redevelopment in the 1950s.  SF Redevelopment Agency
  8. Johnny Mathis performing at Jimbo’s Bop City in the late 1950s.  Photo by Steve Jackson, Jr.
  9. San Francisco State Student Action 1968 [aad-7886].  Photo by Mary Anne Kramer    
  10. The Marcus Bookstore at 1712 Fillmore today BEM

 

For those who would like further information or would like to provide financial support here are contacts and links:

 

To contrbute something toward the million dollars they are trying to raise: http://supportmarcusbooks.com/

To visit the Marcus Bookstore website click here: http://www.marcusbookstores.com/