For the past year and a half, San Francisco’s family-owned Marcus Books has been fighting eviction. The store has been located in the city’s historically African-American Fillmore district since 1960 and has been in its current location, in the storefront of the Johnson family-owned Victorian home, since 1981, making it the oldest black-owned bookstore in the country. But this week, the Johnsons were locked out of their store — and their home — by the building’s new landlords.
In a letter to supporters, bookstore owners Tamiko, Greg and Karen Johnson wrote the following explaining the family’s plight:
It was difficult to know what to tell you about our struggle to stay in our building, its winding path of lawyers and judges and protests and promises, hopes and gravities made it difficult to report our status on a curved road. But the current property owner has changed the locks to the door of 1712 Fillmore Street.
Marcus Books missed a couple of rent payments (not such a rare thing considering that at the same time the largest US banks and even our government asked taxpayers to give them hundreds of billions of dollars of assistance). However, the mortgage holder, PLM Lender, foreclosed on the building that housed Marcus Books of San Francisco since 1981. It was sold to the Sweis family (realtors and owners of Royal Taxi in San Francisco). The Johnson family (co-owners of Marcus Books of San Francisco) has been trying to buy the building back for a year and half.
The Sweis’ bought this building in a bankruptcy “auction” (apparently, they were the only bidder) for $1.6 million. The Johnsons offered $1.8 million; the Sweis set their price at $3.20 million, hoping to double their purchase price after a few months ownership. After some public outrage resulting in public protests against the Sweis, a negotiation brought their asking price down to $2.6 million, adding a million dollar profit to their purchase without adding any improvements to the property and adding a stipulation that the entire $2.6 million be raised within 90 days.
Marcus Books supporters, including the local chapter of the NAACP; ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment; Japantown activists; Westside Community Services; Julian Davis, our fearless legal council; Carlos Levexier’s “Keep It Lit” campaign committee; local literary community including writers and other bookstores; people from all over the world: friends, family, customers, churches and unions took a stand against the bulldozing of community. Individuals, unions, and churches donated $25,000. The Community Land Trust of San Francisco garnered loan pledges of $200,000 and Westside Community Services offered a loan of $1.60 million. Though by any standards that would have been more than enough for a down payment, the Sweiss’ refused the $1.85 million start and filed for eviction.
Concurrently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution requiring every division of city government make it a priority that they each use their “powers” to help Marcus Books stay in its location. In addition, and after 5 years of efforts by John Templeton (the leader in Black California history), and Greg Johnson (co-owner of Marcus Books of San Francisco), London Breed and Malia Cohen, two San Francisco Supervisors, initiated the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous vote granting landmark status.
With the numerous speeches of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee stating his commitment to righting the wrongs of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency’s slaughter of the thriving African American Fillmore District, we at Marcus Books believed the City would take some affirmative action on our behalf, since Marcus Books is the only surviving Black business since the Redevelopment devastation. Maybe that support is around the next bend? Well the locks have been changed, the cavalry is not in sight, and it’s time to pack up the books and store them till we find another space.
You might ask yourself, why bother? Materialism rules the day. That is not news. More often than not, we take it for granted that the “bottom line” is the only line worth respecting, though it respects no one. This is a common conception, but not right. Right is the vertical line that runs through all levels: from its spiritual top to its earthly roots. This verticality is manifested only by integrity. Integrity defies gravity in its perpetual longing for truth. Millions of people have been put out of their homes by bottom-line-feeders. It’s common, but it’s not okay, now or at any other time. Sometimes you just have to take a stand. Integrity is a verb.
In 1970, I had a vision bout rebirth. A segment of that vision informs this struggle. In this particular scene, the spirit is climbing the Tree of Humanity, being lifted higher and higher by those entwined in The Tree. The spirit never steps on anyone’s face or heart. It just carries their dreams up with it. Because it is growing towards rebirth, it gets younger with each step up. Though there are thousands of supporters at the bottom of The Tree, there are fewer at the top and the helping hands are fewer and far between. At the top of The Tree, at the stratum of the clouds, quantity has morphed in into quality. Here a storm of wind and rain rages, lightning strikes and a mad dog spirals up The Tree, snapping at the heels of the now, infant spirit. Teetering on a limb, the spirit sees a man face down in the mud at the bottom of The Tree. Seems he got there from letting go of his faith in The Tree. The surrounding clouds urge the spirit fall.
The rumors, that were whispered,
Here, the silence screams,
And branches battle shadows
To defend their dreams.
Where Black is cut in pieces,
Can’t hold myself together.
Time cuts me down,
Life me brought up,
But lead me to this weather.
The Time says, ‘Fall
To soulless ease.
To struggle is disgrace.
The gravity will grant you peace,
And hide your shameful face.’
But I am born of honor:
Descendent from above.
My Father’s name is Wisdom
And my Mother’s name is Love.
And I have strength of purpose.
That’s what my climb’s about.
As I’m cut off,
I will hold ON
And trustingly Black-out.”
(Copyright 1997, Karen Johnson)
For the hundreds of people who have lent their time, money, and prayers, we are truly grateful.
—Tamiko, Greg, and Karen Johnson, co-owners Marcus Books of San Francisco