A nondescript corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 39th Street in North Oakland houses a historical icon on the brink of extinction. Once a hub of intellectual pursuits and political activism for hundreds of prominent African American movers and shakers ranging from Malcolm X to Queen Latifah, Marcus Bookstore and its history appears to have been forgotten by Oakland’s African American inhabitants as its business has diminished significantly at this iconic location.
The business at the Marcus Books’ location in the Oakland pales in comparison to their San Francisco branch located in Fillmore.
Then cultural significance of Marcus Books is not hard to understand, they proudly state on their website their rich history and the fact that they’re the oldest black bookstore in the nation. Since the 1960s they’ve been at the forefront of support for the Black community aiding to keep the legacy and history of their community. Patrons and writers of the shop range from James Bladwin, Huey Newton, Oprah Winfrey to even David Bowie.
On a chilly morning last week, I got off the train at MacArthur BART and made a quick walk around the corner to hoping to soak up the history in the nation’s oldest black bookstore.
I was so focused on getting there, I almost tuned out the sound of cars hurtling past on the freeway overpass, and noticed the peeling paint on the brightly colored row houses, or the clusters of garbage strewn about on the faded grey pavement.
The bookstore itself wasn’t hard to spot; it was the only building in a row of connected storefronts with an awning and wooden window boxes planted with pink and purple flowers. An unlit sign jutting from the top of the brick building identified it as Marcus Books, and the sign in the window said it was closed. A second sign read that opening hours were 10:00 A.M – 6:00 P.M.
It was 9:55 that morning, so I decided to view the contents within the two display windows through the shiny scrubbed glass while I waited.
Facing the bookstore, the window on the right contained a framed black-and-white image of Malcolm X, and the window on the left displayed a photograph of Obama under a multi-colored painting bearing the words INSPIRE. As I leaned on the window, I noticed that the sparkling glass was marred by what appeared to be a single bullet hole.
Growing a little nervous, as it was now past ten and there were no signs of the bookstore opening, I turned around and noticed a 90’s model sedan had pulled up in front of the bookstore, so I directed my attention to it, assuming it belonged to the owner.
As I watched, a friendly looking middle-aged black man stepped out and approached.
“I’m Al,” he said, “You waiting on Marcus to open?” I replied in the affirmative and asked if he was the owner. “No,” he replied, “but I noticed you waiting and had to stop and tell you the same thing happened when I came by here last week.”
Further conversation revealed that it wasn’t unusual for the bookstore to be closed during stated open hours, apparently due to lack of business.
When Al learned that I was a student trying to learn about the bookstore’s history, he told me that the entire neighborhood had history. He gestured towards a storefront down the street, “See that? Former Black Panther runs that, a woman, but she’s not going to be in ’til one.”
It was 10:15 by then, and no sign of the owner, so I decided I’d waited long enough, and turned to leave. Directly behind me stood a tall emaciated looking elderly man with an unkempt beard who appeared to be homeless. He looked down at me while slurring, “You here to visit Marcus? This place has history you know, but it’s closed now, shut tight… I’m Hasan, it means good in Arabic, you know Arabic?”
Before I could respond, Al answered with, “Yeah, this one’s not doing so good, their San Francisco store is doing much better.”
Al was right, the Oakland location is doing poorly due in part to the diminishing African American presence but largely due to being hit hard by a Ponzi scheme that affected many Bay Area businesses.
The Ponzi scheme threatened not only a national icon, but a family institution. Marcus Books was established by Julian Richardson, whose legacy is continued by his family.
I was unable to reach Blanche Richardson, who runs the Oakland location, and she was featured in an SF Chronicle interview earlier this year, in which she urged Bay Area intellectuals to rally together to preserve this historic location for future generations.
I didn’t get a chance to go inside the bookstore and experience the traces of history I was seeking, but its significance is so great that I felt its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
As I finally made my way back to MacArthur BART, I left a small crowd who’d gathered to proudly inform the newcomer of the greatness of Marcus Books. Everyone knew “Marcus” and what it represented, which in turn gave the neighborhood a sense of legitimacy and relevance.