Marcus Books, oldest Black-owned bookstore, adapts again
By Lou Fancher
With the surging pandemic challenging small businesses and the Black Lives Matter movement creating an energized wave of customers seeking Black literature from the nation’s oldest Black-owned bookstore, Marcus Books, Blanche Richardson says she is swamped, nearly overwhelmed.
Working on what should have been her day off, she’s too busy to chat on the phone because, as it has since 1975, customers — and the Oakland bookstore’s survival — always come first.
It’s far more than a cliché for the store and press founded by Drs. Raye and Julian Richardson in San Francisco in 1960. Named after political activist and author Marcus Garvey, Marcus Books has survived for decades, despite gentrification, economic ups and downs, online shopping competition, and the too-frequent closings of Black-owned bookstores. (Of over 200 in the 1990s, approximately only 120 remain, according to the African-American Literature Book Club.)
Now Richardson and her siblings, Billy Richardson and Karen Johnson, along with a bare-bones staff, scramble to preserve the family legacy.
A Marcus Books 60th Anniversary Fundraiser GoFundMe campaign organized and launched April 8 by Folasade Adesanya and two other supporters has raised $256,889 as of late July, exceeding its $200,000 goal. The money provides immediate support for mortgage payments and expansion of the store’s online infrastructure, programming, and staffing.
Comments on the GoFundMe platform reflect devotion generated by the bookstore.
Marcus book has in the past hosted authors including Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley, Angela Davis, Terry McMillan, Chaka Khan, Michael Eric Dyson, Iyanla Vanzant, Sister Souljah, Nikki Giovanni, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patti LaBelle and numerous local Black authors.
“I want to help Marcus Books succeed in developing a website soon which should help Marcus Books thrive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It would be great to see the Marcus Books Family build a larger market and extend their presence and reach beyond Oakland and the Bay Area,” wrote Elizabeth King.
Carla Schick writes, “All my life I have benefitted from the writings of African-American people. As a youth growing up in poverty, and very aware of class, the writings of Baldwin, the Panthers, MLK, and Lorraine Hansberry, and later the poetry and essays of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and many others kept me alive. I continue with these readings today. As a white American I am grateful for the power and strength of Black writers and for African-American cultural institutions. Thanks to Marcus Books for helping us all create new visions for a better world.”
Other comments read like personal notes, with donations and tributes referencing family members, unforgettable encounters with Richardson or a particular author, or simply a belief that Black-owned businesses must survive for the power of reading and the voices of people of color to continue to be heard in a robust manner. In an interview June 8 with Oakland News Now, Richardson said many books on racial discrimination are on back order.
On May 8, a fundraising poetry reading event held on Zoom featured appearances by Daveed Diggs, Robin Coste Lewis, Danez Smith, Chinaka Hodge and Tongo Eisen-Martin.
In a July 25 email, Richardson expressed appreciation for the support that stretches far beyond the Oakland community and the Bay Area. Still too busy filing customer orders and bolstering the online sales system, she has time only for a quick message: “I’m working 14-hour days and any “extra” time is used to SLEEP!”