Blanche Richardson recalled the “biggest ever” book signing of “the hundreds and hundreds of authors” who have come to Marcus Book Stores over the past 50 years: Muhammed Ali appeared at her family’s Oakland store five years ago.
“It looked like the United Nations around there,” she said. “There was a line four deep, from the bookstore, back around the corner and down to the BART station for six hours. Ali was funny and gracious. He had everybody sit on his lap and take a picture with him. He has Parkinson’s, and was only supposed to be there two hours.”
Ali’s appearance is just one moment, however thronged, in a long history of African American cultural and political activity centered around “the oldest independent Black bookstore in the country,” which features “Books By and about Black People Everywhere.” Richardson reeled off a list of names of those who read or spoke at the stores, or just dropped by, that constituted an index for a course in Black Studies—as the stores themselves provide “a hub for the community.”
Speaking with great affection of her late father, Julian Richardson, who co-founded the stores with her mother, Raye Richardson, Blanche Richardson recalled his irrepressible sense of humor, leading him to invite visiting Muslim leader Malcolm X “down to the corner barbecue joint for some pork chops.” Malcolm laughed, and politely declined.
“Dad passed in August 2000,” Richardson said. “And after 9/11, we really wished he was there! So witty and insightful; he was really something. He did a lot of political work, a lot with black youth. Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, people like that, would come by to see him, get grounded—certainly to find out about the history.”
She recalled what Willie Brown, then mayor of San Francisco, said at her father’s funeral.
“He wasn’t supposed to speak,” she said. “My mother had him sitting up onstage, with a group she called ‘the elders’—the long-winded preachers and politicians, looking good, sitting up there, not saying anything! Very smart. But Willie couldn’t stop himself. He jumped up, went to the mic, and said he’d first met my father when Willie was in law school, and had spent his life trying to impress my dad—‘and it never happened!’ All the other elders looked envious when Willie was speaking: ‘I wish I’d done that!’”
Going through the “boxes and boxes” of papers in his office, Richardson found “jewels,” letters from James Baldwin, African heads of state, plus notes he’d saved that she sent to him. “We lived together, but still wrote to each other constantly,” she said.
In the last box, she found the hand-tooled leather-covered graduation program from Tuskegee Institute, where her parents had met and fallen in love.
“It was in perfect shape, with parchment pages sewn together, and a picture of Booker T. Washington—he was still there, and spoke at the commencement, along with Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History,” she said. “My mom was on a scholarship; her job was to take care of George Washington Carver—who was a nut! Threw biscuits at her ... Ralph Ellison was a classmate ... I thought, what else could my parents have become?”
When the Richardsons moved to San Francisco after the Second World War, a man Richardson’s father had met on a “scouting trip” to the city offered to put the young family up.
“It was Maya Angelou’s stepfather,” she said. “Our family lived with them a while.”
In 1946, the Richardsons established a printing shop in the Fillmore. “Dad had learned lithography at Tuskegee.”
The printing business did jobs for Black businesses and churches, “but my parents’ passion was for the Black literature that had gone out of print.” They began to reprint those books, the first being Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, which found its way into the shop window—and subsequently, into the name of the bookstore that almost inevitably followed.
The San Francisco store moved around over the years, mostly due to the Redevelopment Agency. The biggest location was at Van Ness and McAllister, “with the bookstore, offices and rooms where community organizations met. It was a landmark for visitors from around the world.”
When the State Offices Building was planned for that site, the Redevelopment Agency offered the Richardsons the store’s present location at 1712 Fillmore St., the site of Jimbo’s Bop City jazz club. Members of the family still live in the stories above today.
“We have a picture of Duke Ellington sitting in our living room. That spirit’s still living. It imbues the building. Everybody feels it,” Richardson said, adding that by the mid- to late-‘70s, with “black people forced out of San Francisco by redevelopment, it was no longer a self-sustaining community.”
Marcus Book Stores followed the exodus, opening an East Bay store, first in Berkeley, later at the present Oakland location, 3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. “It became the moneymaker.”
The Richardson children grew up learning the business and still run the stores. Raye Richardson “had a big part in founding the first Black Studies Department anywhere, at SF State. When the mass arrests took place during the strikes there, my parents put the house up to bail those arrested out. Mom eventually became chair of the department for 20 years or so, before she retired, the first emeritus of Ethnic Studies.”
Today, the stores are still vigorous, though under the same cloud as other independent and specialty stores.
“The chain stores took us down first—we wound up with four Barnes & Nobles surrounding us—then Amazon,” Richardson said. “Now B&N’s withdrawing; we’ll see how that impacts business. They took out about half the independents in the Bay Area, which has the highest concentration in the country—and about 80 percent of black bookstores nationwide.”
Marcus Book Stores continue to “carry everything we can afford to carry, from history to cookbooks to children’s books,” she said. “If we didn’t—if we weren’t here—the publishers wouldn’t publish them; there’d be no outlet to sell. There’d be no contracts for Black authors. Who would tell our story?”
MARCUS BOOK STORES
3900 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland