Marcus Books gains more city support

A crowd of supporters for Marcus Books of San Francisco, located at 1712-16 Fillmore St. in Japantown, gathered on the front steps of San Francisco City Hall July 30, in support of the building. Archbishop Franzo King of the Saint John Coltrane Church led a rally of more than 50 people calling for Nishan and Suhaila Sweis to sell the Victorian building back to the African American community in the Fillmore District.

Westside Community Services has offered to buy the property for $1.64 million, or at a three percent profit for the Sweis family, but the family asked for $3.2 million, according to Julian Davis, the lawyer and spokesperson for Greg and Karen Johnson who run the bookstore today. The Sweis family purchased the property at a foreclosure sale after the Johnson family lost the property to what they described was a “predatory” loan.

The rally coincided with Supervisor London Breed’s introduction of a resolution for “Supporting the Historic Marcus Books-Jimbo’s Bop City Building.” The resolution cites that the bookstore, founded in 1960 by Julian and Raye Richardson, “is the oldest Black-owned and Black-themed bookstore in the nation.” The bookstore has served as an institution for many African American community members in San Francisco as a bookstore, as well as a gathering place for organizations such as the Westside Community Services, the Fillmore Community Development Association, the Black Panthers and the 1968 African American strikers at San Francisco State College, according to the resolution and comments from the community.

The Victorian home, built in 1893, was once home to the Nippon Drug Co. prior to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Following the war and the influx of African Americans settling in Japantown and the Fillmore District, the location became home to Jimbo’s Bop City from 1950 to 1965, according to Breed’s resolution. The jazz club hosted renowned jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. During redevelopment in the 1970s, the building was saved from demolition when its entire structure was physically moved from its original location on 1690 Post St. to where it now sits, two blocks away on Fillmore street. Greg and Karen Johnson said Marcus Books moved into the building in 1981 and the family has both lived and worked there since.

The resolution, citing the historical significance of the building and the bookstore located within, said “the board of supervisors directs all city agencies dealing with issues related to the building give substantial weight to community concerns, issues and needs” and “strongly urges the Sweis family to enter into meaningful negotiations with representatives of the Mayor’s office or other body dedicated to assuring the Building’s community serving purposes.”

“Marcus Books holds the memories of both local leaders and worldwide greats. The business and its building are a testament to San Francisco’s history and to the cultural legacy of our Japanese and African American communities,” Breed said in introducing the resolution to the board of supervisors. “But now the building has fallen into the hands of an owner who is evidently — and unfortunately — not interested in keeping Marcus Books as a tenant.”

Breed singled out Japantown activist Karen Kai and Grace Martinez of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment for their work on supporting the bookstore and said the resolution is a demonstration of support from the city. The resolution passed unanimously, according to Breed’s office.

“There used to be more than 400 African American businesses in this city, only a handful remain,” said King. “We need the city to get behind the intellectual mecca of the city, the source of vanguard thinkers.”

King thanked Breed for aiding the community, saying the building and bookstore should be a national landmark.

Jasmine Johnson, daughter of Greg and Karen Johnson and professor of African American studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., spoke about the bookstore. “My classroom began in the bookstore, from the crib and behind the counter. That is home,” she said. “I think the community grew up at Marcus Books.”

Johnson told the rally that her grandparents were committed to black authorship and her grandfather started the first black newspaper in San Francisco and started the bookstore to distribute out-of-print books that were “essential” to black politics and culture.

Devorah Major, former poet laureate of San Francisco, said she has been going to Marcus Books since she was two years old. “I would not be here without the bookstore,” she said. “Nothing does what Marcus Books does, it is more than a bookstore, it is an institution to the community. … It is history.”

Conny Ford of the San Francisco Labor Council spoke as a community member. “My children went to Marcus Books and basically learned to read at Marcus Books,” she said. “Let me say one thing, Marcus Books will survive. It has survived for the past 50 years.” Ford said the bookstore’s resilience through redevelopment and gentrification shows that it will still survive somehow.

Also present was Tony Robles of Poor News Network and Manila Town Heritage Foundation. “The I-Hotel stands in solidarity with Marcus Books,” said Robles. He cited the role African Americans played in instilling the consciousness of race for other ethnic minorities, including his own. “How many bookstores, how many stories must we lose?”

Jameel Patterson, a community member, said Marcus Books served as a refuge for him to “escape the madness of the world.” Patterson said he felt African Americans are being disrespected. “San Francisco would not be the same without the African American population,” he said.

“What would San Francisco be without the Mission? What would it be like without Chinatown?”

Following the rally, Davis told the Nichi Bei Weekly there has been no progress with the negotiations for the sale since Westside Community Services extended their initial offer and were rebuffed.

“Given the city and community’s commitment, (the Sweis family) should reconsider,” he said.

The city is currently moving forward with designating the building as a historical landmark through the Historic Preservation Commission along with Breed’s resolution. Davis said if the Sweis family continues to hold out, he thinks the City can make it very difficult for them to use the property for any other use.

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