Since 1975, Oakland’s Marcus Books has survived one of the most dramatic gentrifications in US history, aggressive competition from online stores, and the inevitable racism directed at a space that celebrates black voices. Located in a city that saw its black population nearly halved over two decades, Marcus Books staff learned how to navigate the intense pressures and forge a path towards survival.
But all those years of hard work were wiped away overnight when the Bay Area announced a strict shelter-in-place order in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, a seminal living piece of American history – the nation’s oldest black bookstore – is at risk of disappearing forever.
“A black bookstore is not only about the exchange of merchandise,” Jasmine Johnson, whose grandparents founded Marcus Books, tells the Guardian. The disappearance of Marcus Books – which first opened in San Francisco in 1960 – and other black-centric book stores would be devastating for the larger black community, she says. “We’re really about congregating around the diversity of black living and thinking. Surviving under economic duress is nothing new to us, but this is something totally different.”
The acute distress Marcus Books and other black bookstores are facinghighlights a severe disparity in reader-led funding. City Lights, an independent bookstore founded in San Francisco in 1953 and designated a landmark in 2001, launched a GoFundMe last month and met its goal of $400,000 in days. At the time of writing, the bookstore had surpassed its goal by nearly $100,000. City Lights has not disclosed how it plans to allocate the excess funds, amid calls to donate them to other struggling local bookstores.
Meanwhile, Marcus Books launched its GoFundMe in April and has failed to reach even half of its $200,000 goal. When asked about the stark differences in Marcus Books’ and City Lights’ fundraisers, Johnson argues: “It’s pretty deeply connected to what happens when you qualify anything with black. You’re met with suspicion or dismissal.” She believes fundraisers by black bookstores are viewed by the larger public as a niche interest. “The publishing industry has had a history of framing us as a ‘diversity section’.”
Black bookstores have fought tooth and nail for the past three decades, as a handful closed each year. According to the African-American Literature Book Club, there were over 200 black-owned bookstores in the 90s. In 2019, the number was slightly over 120. The pandemic has only exacerbated their already precarious existence.
Johnson sees this as an opportunity to remind America why supporting black bookstores is important, even in normal times. “We want to come out of this and go from simply surviving to thriving,” she says of her hopes for the store’s fundraiser.
In an industry where black authors frequently receive less attention and promotion than their white counterparts, bookstores such as Marcus Books play an important role. Malcolm X was among the shop’s customers, and over the years, prominent black authors such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison held events at the bookstore – often before they experienced crossover success and were struggling to book events elsewhere.
“When I was publishing in the 90s and early 00s and had regular tours, Marcus was one of my favorite book stops,” the science-fiction writer Tananarive Due says. Blanche Richardson, who runs the store, “is a community gem and had sold so many of my books that Marcus produced some of my largest and most enthusiastic crowds. I was so in love with Marcus that I included the store in one of the scenes in my horror novel, The Good House, as an homage to try to capture the magic of the store. Marcus is more than a bookstore – it’s a neighborhood, city and state institution.”
Black bookstores have always had to justify their existence and combat racism. The FBI frequently spied on them in the 60s and 70s, when many served as cultural hubs for the Black Power movement. Johnsonsays she and other staff encountered “white-only-water-fountain-level racism” often. This continues during the pandemic: “It shows up on Twitter through people asking ‘Why does a black bookstore need to be saved? Why can’t they save themselves?’ They’re usually from anonymous accounts.”
Marcus Books’ call for help is not unique. Many black bookstores across the nation have launched fundraising campaigns as last-ditch efforts to stay afloat. There’s Black Stone of Ypsilanti, Michigan; Eyeseeme, which specializes in black children’s literature, of St Louis; and LEMS of Seattle, which claims to be the last black-centric bookstore of the Pacific northwest. An entire section of black culture is under threat.
Some of these stores were not equipped to compete with online sales during normal times, much less during a pandemic. Unlike many other independent bookstores, Marcus Books lacks an online operation. So, for now, the store is reliant on phone orders and storefront pickups, severely limiting business when many customers are rarely leaving their homes and turning to online delivery in unprecedented numbers. Richardson, the daughter of the Marcus Books founders, is still operating the store every day.
The contributions to Marcus Books are trickling in, but not fast enough. Hoping to boost support, the store organized an online stream that featured live readings from the poets Danez Smith, Daveed Diggs, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and others. More than 400 people attended, raising $9,000. Johnson said it was more than a fundraising event, offering a chance for the black community to connect. “There was a real alchemy that came together during it,” she says.
Despite all of the challenges facing Marcus Books, Johnson says she is optimistic about the future of the store. It will find a way, she says: “Black bookstores have been making it work for years.”
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