Advice for life, from an artist living on the edge of it
Why this small, Black-owned bookstore is hallowed ground for some
Hari Sreenivasan: Black-owned independent bookstores have been experiencing a surge in sales after the Black Lives Matter movement ignited interest in Black history, white supremacy and how to end racism. Marcus Books, the oldest Black-owned bookstore in the country, has been there for its community through decades of similar challenges now in its 60th year. It stands as a testament to an extraordinary couple's love of books and the Black community.
Clarence Block, Jr.: I still have Professor Blake's little book in the little small book.
Hari Sreenivasan: This small Black-owned bookstore in Oakland, California, is hallowed ground for some.
Clarence Block, Jr.: When I walked into Marcus Books as an African-American man, I had a sense that I belonged somewhere.
Hari Sreenivasan: Clarence Block Jr. grew up in San Francisco and has been coming here for almost 50 years.
Clarence Block, Jr.: Seeing books written about me and my ancestors filled the void.
Hari Sreenivasan: Marcus Books was founded in 1960 by two visionaries, Julian and Ray Richardson. They believe that access to Black literature was paramount to the Black community. Their daughter, Blanche Richardson, runs the bookstore today.
Blanche Richardson: Part of the basis of their relationship was their love of literature when they were teenagers. And it stayed like that. I mean, they, they always read together. They read to each other. They just had a love of books.
Hari Sreenivasan: The couple met in the late 1930s at a unique school in Alabama dedicated to Black self-reliance.
Walter Turner: You have to put Marcus Books and Julian and Ray Richardson really in a historical context. They both were at Tuskegee University, led by Booker T. Washington, which follows the philosophy of Du Purcell. Julian Richardson studied lithography. He met his wife there.
Hari Sreenivasan: Jasmine Johnson is a granddaughter of the Richardsons and a professor of Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jasmine Johnson: At an incredibly young age, she started college not only meeting my grandfather, but becoming a woman of the mind.
Hari Sreenivasan: The intellectual and artistic impact of the Harlem Renaissance was building momentum.
Blanche Richardson: And they would really scour the country looking for books about Black people. At that time, very few Black people were being published. My parents saw the need for Black people to have a source of information about themselves.
Hari Sreenivasan: After a few years in Harlem, the couple headed west and settled in San Francisco. It was 1946 and Julian started Success Printing.
Jasmine Johnson: They were publishing all kinds of things posters, artwork, but they were also republishing Black books that had gone out of print and Success Printing that then turned into Richardson Printing and then turned into Marcus Books.
Hari Sreenivasan: In 1960, the Richardsons opened the bookstore later renaming it Marcus Books after Marcus Garvey, founder of the Black Nationalist Movement. Both their fathers had been Garveyites. A critical cultural and intellectual space was born, fostering a natural gathering place for Black people.
Blanche Richardson: It was a meeting place for many organizations, but also a place that appreciated you, welcomed you, did not follow you around the store with mirrors on the walls, you know?
Walter Turner: When I came in, Julian Richardson, an extremely humble. He would be walking out to check on me. Hey, Walter, what are you thinking? What are you reading?
Hari Sreenivasan: Meanwhile, the neighborhood known as the Fillmore District was becoming a thriving center of Black life.
Walter Turner: On Fillmore Street in the side street, it was like a Harlem of the West Coast because not only were there jazz clubs and blues clubs, as you get to the later part of the 1960s, the office of the Black Panther Party was going to be on that particular street. It really represented the Black community.
Hari Sreenivasan: The Fillmore Street location would be home to generations of the Richardson family.
Jasmine Johnson: I grew up in one big purple Victorian on Fillmore Street. There was the Marcus Books on the bottom, on the storefronts, my grandmother at some point, cousins on the second floor. Everybody was responsible to each other and to this broader commitment, which is about Black literacy.
Hari Sreenivasan: But that commitment would be sidelined as the city's efforts to redevelopment the destruction of the neighborhood, forcing the store and the family to move multiple times. In 1976, the Richardsons opened a second store in Oakland. It was the height of the Black Power movement when the FBI's COINTELPRO program was surveilling Black businesses.
Blanche Richardson: We were targeted for a lot of reasons, just like a lot of other Black organizations were. So we had challenges, just the greater society being threatened by us. Later, it was really just economics.
Hari Sreenivasan: In 2014, the San Francisco store shuttered after predatory loans forced the family to sell their building. When the community raised $1.64 million dollars to buy back the store, the developers refused to sell.
Jasmine Johnson: There's something about that liberalism that's really thick in San Francisco that can sometimes mask the operations of its anti-Blackness. The Save Marcus Books campaign was really one about saving Black San Francisco.
Hari Sreenivasan: But in Oakland, the gatherings continued. Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Terry McMillan, Nikki Giovanni, Oprah Winfrey and many others all held readings at Marcus Books.
Clarence Block, Jr.: I've never stopped coming, I've brought my granddaughters down here, and they get to see how great their people were and are.