Marcus Books, the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States, turned 60 this year. Between global pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the death of Marcus Books founder Dr. Raye Richardson at age 99, this has been a rollercoaster of a year for the Richardson family and their landmark shop and publishing press. Loud calls to support Black businesses have prompted increased attention on Marcus Books, a welcome shift at a time when Covid-19 has been decimating small businesses that rely on in-person interaction.
Covid-19 social distancing protocols meant that the store—which has hosted countless Black authors and icons, from Muhammad Ali to Toni Morrison—spent part of their milestone year unable to welcome customers into the shop. An online fundraiser started by loyal patron Folasade Adesanya, creator of The Black Syllabus, has garnered more than $259,000 for the store.
Blanche Richardson, co-owner of Marcus Books alongside her two living siblings, says the store has been through a lot during its history. Blanche’s parents first opened it in 1960 in San Francisco as the Black Power movement was taking root nationally. Their first Oakland location opened in 1976.
Adesanya writes that, through their bookstore and their publishing press, the Richardson family “fiercely advocated for Black history, exchange, and knowledge of self. They published now canonical books (that had before their resurrection gone out of print) and work by independent authors, poets, and artists.”
The printing press is still active and housed in the same building as the bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Blanche’s brother Billy runs the presses and also makes stained glass art that can be seen throughout the store.
In a 2008 interview for Bookslut, Blanche described the ways Marcus Books supported the Civil Rights Movement.
“Marcus Books provided a forum for many Civil Rights and Black Power organizations,” Blanche said. “We also provided meeting space for organizations to plan their strategies—marches, rallies and the like.”
She continued, “Marcus Books initiated dozens of forums and seminars on race relationships and the politics of Blackness. Our family—sometimes just our family—picketed every place there was to picket: hotels, car dealerships, retail businesses, housing developments.”
There’s a lot more at stake in keeping Marcus Books thriving than merely keeping one family in business. Keeping Black bookstores open also helps to sustain the larger ecosystem of Black publishing. If there are fewer venues that stock and sell works by Black writers, that can lead to fewer contracts for Black authors.
Adesanya writes, “Marcus Books is an institution where those who have written books, produced visual work and more can see themselves on a shelf, wall or counter surrounded by other Black makers.”
In an appearance on The Tonight Show, Hamilton star and rapper Daveed Diggs, who grew up in Oakland, told host Jimmy Fallon about how impactful Marcus Books has been in his life.
Diggs said, “It’s a wonderful store and wonderful resource. As a writer and artist and thinker, growing up, it was a really important community space for me and my peers who grew up in a scene together. It really connected us to a history of art and activism in Oakland.”
This year’s Black Lives Matter protests have also prompted an increase in book sales by Black authors to white and other non-Black buyers—especially books on race and anti-racism. Marcus Books has seen increased sales to customers of all races.
“It is due, I feel, to the generous amount of local and national media—print, radio, TV, social media—we’ve been fortunate to get,” says Blanche. “Our regular base—which includes some of everyone—continues to provide strong support.”
Most independent bookstores have been challenged for decades, first struggling to compete against large chain retailers and then Amazon.com.
Adesanya writes, “Between 1999 and 2014, the number of Black bookstores [in the U.S.] declined by 83%, from 325 to only 54.”
Blanche says, “We have experienced and survived quite a few challenges and still maintained a good standing in the national Black community. Despite the invasion of Barnes and Noble and online shopping, we are still standing.” The success of the GoFundMe campaign is heartening. “[It] is not only a humbling inspiration, but a source of funding for the great projects we are planning, i.e. a magnificent website.”
While their website is under construction, customers from all over the U.S. can still shop at Marcus Books. Locals can now come into the store as long as they are wearing a mask and adhere to Covid-19 protocols. To place orders for shipping or curbside pickup, shoppers may contact the store via email or phone.
“We are doing a tremendous amount of mail orders right now,” says Blanche.
Those orders have been keeping Blanche and her family incredibly busy. So busy, in fact, she says she barely has time to read.
“Of course, it doesn’t stop me from accumulating more books,” Blanche says. “I have probably 30 new books stacked up begging to be read! The last and best I read this year was Deacon King Kong by James McBride. [It’s] a fabulous, intelligent, entertaining read.”