Marcus BooksMarcus Books is a historic staple in San Francisco, Calif.’s Fillmore District. The oldest black-owned bookstore in the United States has been standing on 1712 Fillmore St. since 1960, hosting Civil Rights, jazz and literary legends from James Baldwin to Malcolm X. It’s been called the “Harlem of the West” for its storied past and importance to San Francisco’s African-American population.

Despite its role as a community relic, Marcus Books will close its doors on June 18. A bad business loan that resulted in foreclosure and bankruptcy forced the owners to sell the Victorian building to Nishan and Suhaila Sweis.

“We are in the fight of our lives to hold onto just even a bit of our culture and Marcus Books is at the center of that,” San Francisco Supervisor London Breed said.

The San Francisco Examiner reports:

When the bookstore leaves the three-story building — trucked there from Laguna Street after it was saved from the Redevelopment Agency wrecking ball that leveled most of the Western Addition — it also means the family that owns it must leave the two upstairs flats.

That is, unless the new owners can be convinced — by the NAACP, by housing activists, by the neighborhood, and by The City — to sell to a neighborhood-based nonprofit that’s offering them a modest profit on their deal, as well as the chance to be saviors to a pillar of black community in San Francisco.

“We’re not asking for a handout,” said Gregory Johnson, who with his wife, Karen run the bookstore. “It would be one thing if we didn’t have the money,” Karen Johnson added, as they sat in the bookstore’s incense-scented ground-floor space, indoor plants adding to the cool refuge from an unseasonably hot afternoon. “But we do. We have the money and The City behind us.”

The trouble at Marcus Books began in 2006. Like so many other people during the real estate boom, the family took out a loan in order to pay expenses, Karen Johnson said during an interview at the bookstore Friday.

And like so many others, the loan — $950,000, with fixed monthly payments but a high 10 percent interest rate — turned out to be “predatory,” she said. Monthly payments on the building ballooned to about $10,000, according to Dr. Mary Ann Jones, executive director of Westside Community Services.

The family has contacted the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, which is investigating the loan’s legitimacy, according to attorney Julian Davis. But in the meantime, a last-minute effort by the Johnsons to buy the property from creditors missed a deadline.

The building was sold off in bankruptcy court to real estate investors who own a taxicab company and specialize in finding distressed properties for investment opportunities.

The closing of the oldest continuously running black bookstore in the country would be just part of the loss to the community. Dr. Raye Richardson, who is 93 and still lives in the home, and her late husband, Dr. Julian Richardson, who died in 2000, were longtime San Francisco State University professors who were pillars of the Fillmore. A new senior housing complex on Fulton and Gough streets was named after them.

And if the bookstore goes, it will be yet another longtime black-owned business falling victim to a changing landscape.

Jasmine Johnson has launched a Change petition to request the Sweises to sell the building to Westside Community Services, an agency in the San Francisco area that’s agreed to repurchase the building in order to preserve the bookstore.

Westside has offered to pay $1.64 million to the Sweises for the building. The couple paid $1.59 million for the property in April.

The petition has more than 3,000 followers, but is requesting 1,900 more.

One signee, Devorah Major, writes that she supports the petition because Marcus Books gave her the confidence to pursue writing as a career.

Would I have become a writer without Marcus Books demonstrating that there were thousands of authors of African descent? Would my children have grown into as well-gronded (sp) adults without the books offered at Marcus and not at other bookstores and not “featured” online without the affirming books I bought for them at Marcus Books. The are (sp) history, culture, an indispensable resource. They are a part of San Francisco and the city will be far less of a city without Marcus Books.

There are six days left to convince the current owners to sell to Westside Community Services. Supporters are hopeful Marcus Books will be saved.

“Maybe,” Gregory Johnson said, “the Sweisses might end up the heroes of the story.”

  • Mademoiselle

    This doesn’t need a petition, it needs a fundraising campaign. I’m not sure if this is something that would be suitable for a Kickstarter website, or what, but for once I think petitioning is the wrong move here. Tell me where to donate, and I’ll send my pledge immediately. Let’s keep this in the community!

  • http://troydjohnson.com Troy Johnson

    I’ve been tracking Independent Black owned stores for some time: http://aalbc.it/deathboibs. Unfortunately, across the country, this story is too often repeated. The reasons are as varied as the stores themselves. Regardless of the reasons for the closures, the importance of independent bookstores, focused on Black books, remains the same. Thanks for helping to bring attention to this issue!

  • The Fillmore

    How in da hell did this happen? The family and owners of Marcus Bookstore are all educated and have been business owners for over 40 years. The building should have been paid off years ago. I smell a rat and wouldn’t donate one dime to this effort until all the facts are out. Greg Johnson is a retired Administrator from the local hospital in San Francisco and he should have more business sense to let this bookstore go out of business.