Community pressures family to sell J-Town Victorian

After entering foreclosure and closing escrow June 18 according to the Johnson family, the future of 1712 Fillmore St. and its tenants remain unclear. The old Victorian house on the western edge of Japantown is currently occupied by Marcus Books of San Francisco, which describes itself as the nation’s oldest African American bookstore and the Johnson family, which runs the store.

The Victorian house where the store resides survived redevelopment in the 1960s, which demolished most of San Francisco’s Japantown to make way for what is now the Japan Center Malls and the eight-lane Geary Boulevard, and was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, a famous jazz club the likes of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington once played, Julian Davis, the Johnson family and book store’s attorney and spokesperson said.

Originally a Victorian home located on 1690 Post St., it was also home to the Nippon Drug Co. prior to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The building was physically moved from its Post Street location during redevelopment to its current address on Fillmore in the 1970s. Greg Johnson, owner of Marcus Books of San Francisco, with his wife Karen Johnson, said the bookstore has called it its home since 1981. Karen Johnson’s brother and niece, William Richardson and Cherysse Calhoun run the Oakland bookstore.

While the building has yet to gain status as a landmark, Greg Johnson said the city has been considering the building for historic preservation for the past five years. Citing the sale, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission has renewed its efforts to record the building as a landmark, saying it will discuss it Wednesday, July 17.

Nishan and Suhaila Sweis purchased the foreclosed property after the Johnsons lost their property through a “predatory” loan, according to Davis. He went on to say, as of June 18, the building’s occupants could be evicted at anytime should the Sweis family file for it. The book store currently remains open while the Westside Community Services continues to extend an offer to purchase the property.

Mary Ann Jones, executive director of the Westside Community Services, said the board of directors at the community health center has been supportive of helping to keep the bookstore at its current location. “From the first day the board discussed this, we wanted to be committed to help,” Jones said. Westside, which provides a variety of mental and physical health services for the underserved populations of San Francisco, primarily its African American population in and around the Western Addition, uses Marcus Books as a space to hold workshops and classes.

“Marcus Books is a portal for us,” she said. “We send people here… because they won’t be judged here.” Jones argued that the bookstore offers a less-stigmatizing environment for their clients who might feel an aversion to attending programs at a clinic.

Westside Community Services offered the Sweis family $1.64 million, a three percent profit, for the property, but were rebuffed by the couple’s lawyer, according to Davis. Through the Sweis family’s lawyer, Seth Kershaw, the Sweis family told Davis and the Johnson family they had no interest in leasing the property to the Johnsons and would consider selling for $3.2 million. Davis, however said, Suhaila Sweis called Westside to discuss the property June 17 but the two parties had not been able to get in touch with each other since then. As of June 22, Davis said the negotiations have “not gone beyond the initial offer, the rejection and the public urging them to reconsider.”

At press time, neither the Sweis family, nor their lawyer, could be reached for comment.

Citing the long history and deep meaning the location has for the community, Davis called on the Sweis family to reconsider the offer once again at a June 22 press conference held at the bookstore, asking of the Sweis family, “What side of history do they want to be on?”

San Francisco’s African American community, along with other groups, has expressed support for the bookstore, calling for the Sweis family to sell. A Change.org petition gained more than 6,000 signatures as of June 24. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have voiced their support for the bookstore, along with other community members.

Greg Johnson said he was humbled by the support. The Johnsons have run the store since 2010 when he and Karen Johnson, along with their daughter purchased the store from Karen Johnson’s mother, Raye Richardson. Johnson said he has no plans to leave the community saying, “We are here, we remain here, we will be here. It’s for the benefit for the community.”

For more information about the the Save Marcus Books campaign, contact the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, (415) 335-7033 or sanfrancisco@calorganize.org.

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