Marcus Books is bastion of Black literary community

A variety of books laying on shelves in a bookstore
Amanda Ramirez/Senior Staff

Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest Black bookstore, first opened its doors in San Francisco in 1960. Tucked away in the back of a print shop, the store originally was called Success Book Store and was often visited by icons such as Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey. The store has long been considered a symbol for the community and continues to be an invaluable resource to Oakland and the Bay Area.

Almost two decades after the store’s first iteration, the original owners, Julian and Raye Richardson, opened up shop in Oakland. The store thrived for many years and remains in its same location on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, right next to the MacArthur BART station. Meanwhile, the original San Francisco store closed and reopened in the Fillmore District in 1981. The current store is now co-owned by Karen, Greg and Tamiko Johnson.

The store serves as an homage to Black culture and is named after the leader of the Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, Marcus Garvey. The store carries titles from Black authors across genres and subject matter.

The outside walls of the building are adorned with sprawling murals that depict influential Black authors, references to African culture and motivating words by the painters themselves. The largest mural shows floor-to-ceiling books written by Black authors and various cultural moments in Black history. “The answer is N us. The world changes when we do,” reads one of the murals, painted by Oakland artist Jimi Evins.

Marcus Books itself has a rich cultural history, representing a place of unity for the Black community during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It was also an important location for local authors such as music critic and social advocate Amiri Baraka and political satirist Ishmael Reed to hold readings and events during the 1970s. The store was also used by the Black Panther Party to congregate and hold lectures.

The bookstore specializes in books written by Black authors, featuring autobiographies, selections of children’s books with Black protagonists, cookbooks and history books on ancient African history as well as various Black social movements. Though big franchises such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other major booksellers have posed economic threats to smaller bookstores like Marcus Books, the store prides itself on having an unmatchable variety of Black-centered books.

Multiple times a week, Marcus Books holds events fronted by both established and upcoming Black authors such as Angela Davis, an American political activist who rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s for her work with the Communist Party of the United States of America and with the Black Panther Party. Other famous figures include author, activist and artist Sister Souljah, writer of the memoir “No Disrespect,” and Terry McMillan, who is known for writing books on Black female characters and has been praised for the realistic and relatable quality of her novels, which include “The Interruption of Everything” and “Getting to Happy.” McMillan is also an alumna — she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley in 1971!

Marcus Books also frequently welcomes many other Black authors to promote their books and connect with the community. Among these creators have been DeVon Franklin, an author from San Francisco who specializes in self-help books, and Monique Morris, an award-winning author who addresses social justice and the unjust punishment of Black girls in the education system.

The bookstore has also brought in many activists, including Emory Douglas, the former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party and Sekou Odinga, an activist who was imprisoned during the Black Liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Also among these figures who have visited Marcus Books is the legendary activist Bobby Seale, who co-founded the Black Panther Party along with Huey Newton.

In recent years, Marcus Books has experienced some financial woes, and its Fillmore location ultimately shut its doors, reopening in 2016 in a smaller setting in the San Francisco African American Art and Culture Complex, located at 762 Fulton St. The charming store, nonetheless, is still thriving and isn’t far from UC Berkeley’s campus, making it well worth a visit to dive headfirst into the ocean of Black history and culture that Marcus Books offers.

Contact Pooja Bale at [email protected] .