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Landlords lock owners out of historic black bookstore today

Photo by Chris Carlsson
Photo by Chris Carlsson
Photo by Chris Carlsson

Today the doors closed on America’s oldest black bookstore and a crucial part of San Francisco’s Fillmore historic culture was lost, possibly for good.

After a year and a half long struggle to keep the doors open at the San Francisco branch of Marcus Bookstores, the oldest independently owned African American bookstore in the nation, the Johnson family, owners of the store arrived today to find that their landlords had changed their locks, closing the doors on the fifty-four year old bookstore after thirty-three years at the same location.

“The locks have been changed, the cavalry is not in sight, and it’s time to pack up the books and store them till we find another space,” said co-owner Karen Johnson in an open letter to supporters

The 1712 Fillmore Street location one of two sister stores, with a second Marcus Bookstore in Oakland. Marcus has served the community for half a century. Founded in 1960, the store has been at its Fillmore location since 1981. As a part of the political consciousness and civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies, the store hosted legendary authors and political activists including James Baldwin, Huey Newton, Jesse Jackson, and Angela Davis. Major names in black literature, including Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler, have made personal appearances at the store.

The store was also a part of the thriving African American business and residential community that sprung up in the Fillmore after shipyard workers began purchasing homes and storefronts there during World War II, and continued until the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency shut it down in the seventies, a scandal the repercussions of which last to this day.

“With the numerous speeches of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee stating his commitment to righting the wrongs of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s slaughter of the thriving African American Fillmore District, we at Marcus Books believed the City would take some affirmative action on our behalf,” said Karen Johnson, “ since Marcus Books is the only surviving Black business since the Redevelopment devastation.”

Many politicians and community members pledged support to the store, pledging $1.85 million of the $2.6 million dollars that would have been required to purchase the building from its new owners, the Sweis family (realtors and owners of Royal Taxi in San Francisco), but were unable to raise enough to purchase the building.