September 2008

Gili Warsett


An Interview with Blanche Richardson of Marcus Books

Bookselling is entwined with the identity of a bookstore. Frequent visitors, the browsers and customers, are also extensions of a bookstore’s identity. Marcus Books survives because every day it fulfills peoples’ needs; this is a place that provides nourishment. A family-run community space, Marcus Books dedicates itself to Black communities in San Francisco and Oakland by stocking books written by Black authors, historical books about Africa and African-Americans, and books that cannot be found elsewhere. Most importantly, when stopping in to Marcus Books you will find booksellers who are descendants of Drs. Raye and the late Julian Richardson, the great minds behind this community pillar. I spoke to Blanche Richardson, who runs the Oakland location of Marcus Books.

Is there a mission statement for Marcus Books?

To provide a resource for the community for books by and about Black people everywhere. It is essential that all cultures have a place where they can access information about themselves -- their history, their culture, their unique issues, their political and social standing in the greater society, and a place where children have access to books that show them in a positive light.

What is the history of Marcus Books?

My parents originally opened a printing business in the Fillmore District of San Francisco -- Success Printing. Then they began to publish works by Black authors and poets as well as out-of-print literature they deemed essential reading, such as The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey and Stolen Legacy by George G.M. James. In 1960, they began selling books out of the printing storefront. When the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency began “redeveloping” Blacks out of San Francisco, devastating the self-contained and vibrant Fillmore District, many Black families moved to the East Bay and my parents opened a second store in Oakland in 1976.

Why did your parents decide to open Marcus Books in 1960?

They shared a love of reading Black books and found them difficult to find and purchase. They realized that for a Black community to be progressive, it must have its own bookstore as a source of information about itself. Marcus Books was established because at the time there was an appetite for books about Black people. We were responding to that appetite, that interest.

What is your relationship to Marcus Books? Are you an owner?

The stores were founded by my parents, Drs. Raye and Julian Richardson who met as teenagers while attending Tuskegee Institute. I operate the Oakland store with my daughter, Cherysse. My sister, Karen and her oldest daughter, Tamiko, run the San Francisco store. My brothers Mac (Julian, Jr.) and Billy took over the printing and publishing end of the business (which is now located at the Oakland site). My brother, Mac died in 1999. My father, Julian died in 2000. Dr. Raye Richardson is the sole owner. My grandchildren and my sister’s grandchildren -- the fourth generation -- also work in the stores in whatever capacity their ages allow.

What are the differences and the common threads between the San Francisco and Oakland Marcus Books Stores?

While the stores look vastly different, we carry the same stock. The client base varies because San Francisco’s Black population is down to about 1.5%, while Oakland’s is approximately 40%. Both stores, however, see a wide range of customers -- young, old, Black, White, Asian, African, male and female -- who read in every possible genre of literature. The San Francisco store, situated in what is now called the Historic Fillmore Jazz District, has quite a bit more foot traffic than the Oakland store. The Oakland store is more of a destination stop, but is close to all the major highways and the rapid transit system. Both stores see many visitors to the Bay Area who have heard of Marcus Books.

What is the literary climate like for Black readers, artist, and writers now?

It’s the same. It would be suicidal not to be. However, now the interest has expanded beyond an interest in only Black people. Blacks are now also interested in multi-national, multi-racial issues.

How has Marcus Books intersected with the civil rights movement?

Marcus Books was a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Marcus Books provided a forum for many Civil Rights and Black Power organizations. We also provided meeting space for organizations to plan their strategies -- marches, rallies and the like. Marcus Books was frequently where people met up after rallies and marches. We also hosted many authors who were writing about the political scene at the time. When the Black students and faculty at San Francisco State University went on strike, our home was put up as collateral to get them out of jail. My parents were frequent speakers at various political events. Marcus Books initiated dozens of forums and seminars on race relationships and the politics of Blackness. Our family -- sometimes just our family -- picketed every place there was to picket: hotels, car dealerships, retail businesses, housing developments.

Will you talk about the history of the Black Panther Party in relation to Marcus Books?

The Black Panther Party was never a part of Marcus Book Stores. We were separate organizations in tandem with the same need for Black people to assert themselves, and to defend themselves against the negativity that was a part of the American culture vis-à-vis Blacks.

Do you have a favorite event, or a few favorite events that have taken place at Marcus Books?

All events are great that happen at Marcus Books because they are instructive, informative, exciting and positive. (Nutritious too, if we serve food!) Authors who have appeared here include Muhammad Ali (our biggest event in 48 years), Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, B.B. King, Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah, Randall Robinson, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, Nikki Giovanni, E. Lynn Harris, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley, and hundreds of others.

How does Marcus Books survive among chain bookstores and online bookstores like Amazon?

Marginally! That we survived is a testament to some very dedicated customers who appreciate the value, the warmth, the camaraderie established by Marcus Book Stores. It has to be very rewarding for a Black person to walk into a business establishment and not be subjected to preconceived notions that he or she is a thief.

What is your vision for Marcus Books’ future?

In the last four years, 75% of Black bookstores in the country have had to close their doors. So, our immediate vision is to keep the doors open. Our long-term vision is to expand the stores to include cafes and to have a strong online presence. Our future is tied up with the future for Black people. Black people will always be interested in positive books about themselves, their own achievement, accomplishments, views for the future, for themselves, their children and for the country.

What is your favorite book?

I have read far too much to have “a” favorite book. This is a very long list -- and growing. My next favorite will be the next book written by a Black person for the benefit of Black people. The list includes Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Stolen Legacy by George G. M. James, Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson, Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell, Tina McElroy Ansa’s The Hand I Fan With, Race Matters by Cornel West, Disappearing Acts by Terry McMillan, Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy Leary, Where Did Our Love Go? by Nelson George, They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and dozens of other titles -- including many children’s books.

What are you currently reading?

I am currently re-reading – for the second time in three months -- the magnificent novel by James (The Color of Water) McBride -- Song Yet Sung. It’s brilliant! I am also re-reading Rediscovering Our African Heritage by Basil Davidson which was one of the first books that put black people in a positive historical light. I’m also reading the 20th anniversary edition of Iyanla Vanzant’s Tapping the Power Within and Robert Greer’s new mystery, Blackbird Farewell.