The foreclosure crisis has devastated black families and businesses across the country, including the country’s oldest black bookstore. Marcus Bookstore, a landmark San Francisco black -owned business that opened in 1960 and survived the razing of the city’s historic African-American Fillmore district, is on the brink of closure. And now a fierce battle has started to save it.
"We’re not asking for a handout," said Gregory Johnson, who with his wife, Karen run the bookstore. "It would be one thing if we didn’t have the money," Karen Johnson added, as they sat in the bookstore’s incense-scented ground-floor space, indoor plants adding to the cool refuge from an unseasonably hot afternoon. "But we do. We have the money and The City behind us."
The trouble at Marcus Books began in 2006. Like so many other people during the real estate boom, the family took out a loan in order to pay expenses, Karen Johnson said during an interview at the bookstore Friday.
And like so many others, the loan — $950,000, with fixed monthly payments but a high 10 percent interest rate — turned out to be "predatory," she said. Monthly payments on the building ballooned to about $10,000, according to Dr. Mary Ann Jones, executive director of Westside Community Services.
The family has contacted the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris, which is investigating the loan’s legitimacy, according to attorney Julian Davis. But in the meantime, a last-minute effort by the Johnsons to buy the property from creditors missed a deadline.
Family members have started a petition on Change.org to asking the building’s new owners to "save the legacy of Marcus Books and keep the country’s oldest black-owned Bookstore in San Francisco." See the petition on Change.org.
Jasmine Johnson, granddaughter of the store’s founders, wrote a powerful piece on the challenges facing black-owned bookstores for Colorlines.com last year when Harlem’s Hue-Man closed its doors:
The challenges black bookstores face are no romance. Advancing technology and digitization are increasingly central to the book-buying market; a desire for immediate ownership (even though it is technically only licensing) and quick-click purchasing has made brick-and-mortar stores synonymous with the slow, aging, and nostalgic. "For me, closing was a complete no-brainer," Allen says. "The rent was going to go up, but even if I could have negotiated the same rent, I wouldn’t have done it. The market is costly, the space is inadequate, the vision is backward. This is 10-years-back; we need a 20-years-forward vision."
Hue-Man is the stuff that community is made of–a space where we interact with others through the mutual valuation of literacy. The generosity found there characterizes many independent black businesses. They give as far as their means can stretch. Kindness often makes more acute the gaps in inventory. Regardless, we get to know us better by being there.