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Why Black-owned independent bookstores matter

Many Black-owned independent bookstores experienced a surge in sales this past summer after the George Floyd protests ignited more interest in learning about Black history, white supremacy, and systemic racism. Marcus Books is the oldest Black-owned bookstore in the country, serving its community for 60 years and weathering many changes.

AIRED: February 28, 2021 | 0:05:30
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>> Sreenivasan: BLACK-OWNED

INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES HAVE BEEN

EXPERIENCING A SURGE IN SALES

AFTER THE BLACK LIVES MATTER

MOVEMENT IGNITED INTEREST IN

BLACK HISTORY, WHITE SUPREMACY,

AND HOW TO END RACISM.

MARCUS BOOKS, THE OLDEST BLACK-

OWNED BOOKSTORE IN THE COUNTRY,

HAS BEEN THERE FOR ITS COMMUNITY

THROUGH DECADES OF SIMILAR

CHALLENGES.

NOW IN ITS 60th YEAR, IT STANDS

AS A TESTAMENT TO AN

EXTRAORDINARY COUPLE'S LOVE OF

BOOKS AND THE BLACK COMMUNITY.

THIS SMALL BLACK-OWNED BOOKSTORE

IN OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA, IS

HALLOWED GROUND FOR SOME.

>> WHEN I WALKED INTO MARCUS

BOOKS, AS AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN

MAN, I HAD A SENSE THAT I

BELONGED SOMEWHERE.

>> Sreenivasan: CLARENCE BLOCK,

JR. GREW UP IN SAN FRANCISCO AND

HAS BEEN COMING HERE FOR ALMOST

50 YEARS.

>> SEEING BOOKS THAT WERE

WRITTEN ABOUT ME AND MY

ANCESTORS FILLED A VOID.

>> Sreenivasan: MARCUS BOOKS WAS

FOUNDED IN 1960 BY TWO

VISIONARIES, JULIAN AND RAYE

RICHARDSON.

THEY BELIEVED THAT ACCESS TO

BLACK LITERATURE WAS PARAMOUNT

TO THE BLACK COMMUNITY.

THEIR DAUGHTER, BLANCHE

RICHARDSON, RUNS THE BOOKSTORE

TODAY.

>> PART OF THE BASIS OF THEIR

RELATIONSHIP WAS THEIR LOVE OF

LITERATURE WHEN THEY WERE

TEENAGERS-- AND IT STAYED LIKE

THAT.

THEY ALWAYS READ TOGETHER, THEY

READ TO EACH OTHER, THEY JUST

HAD A LOVE OF BOOKS.

>> Sreenivasan: THE COUPLE MET

IN THE LATE 1930s, AT A UNIQUE

SCHOOL IN ALABAMA, DEDICATED TO

BLACK SELF-RELIANCE.

>> YOU HAVE TO PUT MARCUS BOOKS

AND JULIAN AND RAYE RICHARDSON

REALLY IN A HISTORICAL CONTEXT.

THEY BOTH WERE AT TUSKEGEE

UNIVERSITY, LED BY BOOKER T.

WASHINGTON, WHO ESPOUSED A

PHILOSOPHY OF DO FOR SELF.

JULIAN STUDIED LITHOGRAPHY, HE

MET HIS WIFE THERE.

>> Sreenivasan: JASMINE JOHNSON

IS A GRANDDAUGHTER OF THE

RICHARDSONS AND A PROFESSOR OF

AFRICANA STUDIES AT THE

UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA.

>> AT AN INCREDIBLY YOUNG AGE

SHE STARTED COLLEGE, NOT ONLY

MEETING MY GRANDFATHER, BUT

BECOMING A WOMAN OF THE MIND.

>> Sreenivasan: THE INTELLECTUAL

AND ARTISTIC IMPACT OF THE

HARLEM RENAISSANCE WAS BUILDING

MOMENTUM.

>> THEY WOULD REALLY SCOUR THE

COUNTRY, LOOKING FOR BOOKS ABOUT

BLACK PEOPLE.

AT THAT TIME VERY FEW BLACK

PEOPLE WERE BEING PUBLISHED.

MY PARENTS SAW THE NEED FOR

BLACK PEOPLE TO HAVE A SOURCE OF

INFORMATION ABOUT THEMSELVES.

>> Sreenivasan: AFTER A FEW

YEARS IN HARLEM, THE COUPLE

HEADED WEST AND SETTLED IN SAN

FRANCISCO.

IT WAS 1946, AND JULIAN STARTED

SUCCESS PRINTING.

>> THEY WERE PUBLISHING ALL

KINDS OF THINGS, YOU KNOW,

POSTERS, ARTWORK, BUT THEY WERE

ALSO REPUBLISHING BLACK BOOKS

THAT HAD GONE OUT OF PRINT.

SUCCESS PRINTING, THAT THEN

TURNED INTO RICHARDSON PRINTING,

THAT THEN TURNED INTO MARCUS

BOOKS.

>> Sreenivasan: IN 1960, THE

RICHARDSONS OPENED THE

BOOKSTORE, LATER RENAMING IT

MARCUS BOOKS AFTER MARCUS

GARVEY, FOUNDER OF THE BLACK

NATIONALIST MOVEMENT.

BOTH THEIR FATHERS HAD BEEN

GARVEYITES.

A CRITICAL CULTURAL AND

INTELLECTUAL SPACE WAS BORN,

FOSTERING A NATURAL GATHERING

PLACE FOR BLACK PEOPLE.

>> IT WAS A MEETING PLACE FOR

MANY ORGANIZATIONS, BUT ALSO A

PLACE THAT APPRECIATED YOU,

WELCOMED YOU, DID NOT FOLLOW YOU

AROUND THE STORE WITH MIRRORS ON

THE WALLS, YOU KNOW.

>> WHEN I CAME IN, JULIAN

RICHARDSON, EXTREMELY HUMBLE, HE

WOULD BE WALKING OUT TO CHECK ON

ME.

"WELL, WALTER WHAT ARE YOU

THINKING, WHAT ARE YOU READING?"

>> Sreenivasan: MEANWHILE, THE

NEIGHBORHOOD-- KNOWN AS THE

FILLMORE DISTRICT-- WAS BECOMING

A THRIVING CENTER OF BLACK LIFE.

>> ON FILLMORE STREET AND THE

SIDE STREETS IT WAS LIKE A

HARLEM OF THE WEST COAST,

BECAUSE NOT ONLY WERE THERE JAZZ

CLUBS AND BLUES CLUBS, BUT AS

YOU GET TO THE LATER PART OF THE

1960s THE OFFICE OF THE BLACK

PANTHER PARTY WAS ON THAT

PARTICULAR STREET.

IT REALLY REPRESENTED THE BLACK

COMMUNITY.

>> Sreenivasan: THE FILLMORE

STREET LOCATION WOULD BE HOME TO

GENERATIONS OF THE RICHARDSON

FAMILY

>> I GREW UP IN ONE BIG PURPLE

VICTORIAN ON FILMORE STREET.

THERE WAS MARCUS BOOKS ON THE

BOTTOM AT THE STOREFRONT, MY

GRANDMOTHER AND AT SOME POINT

COUSINS ON THE SECOND FLOOR, YOU

KNOW, EVERYBODY WAS RESPONSIBLE

TO EACH OTHER AND TO THIS

BROADER COMMITMENT TO BLACK

LITERACY.

>> Sreenivasan: BUT THAT

COMMITMENT WOULD BE SIDELINED AS

THE CITY'S EFFORTS TO REDEVELOP

MEANT THE DESTRUCTION OF THE

NEIGHBORHOOD, FORCING THE

STORE-- AND THE FAMILY-- TO MOVE

MULTIPLE TIMES.

IN 1976, THE RICHARDSONS OPENED

A SECOND STORE, IN OAKLAND.

IT WAS THE HEIGHT OF THE BLACK

POWER MOVEMENT, WHEN THE

F.B.I.'S CO-INTELPRO PROGRAM WAS

SURVEILLING BLACK BUSINESSES.

>> WE WERE TARGETED FOR A LOT OF

REASONS, JUST LIKE A LOT OF

OTHER BLACK ORGANIZATIONS WERE.

SO, WE HAD CHALLENGES IN TERMS

OF THE GREATER SOCIETY BEING

THREATENED BY US.

LATER, IT WAS REALLY JUST

ECONOMICS.

>> Sreenivasan: IN 2014, THE SAN

FRANCISCO STORE SHUTTERED AFTER

PREDATORY LOANS FORCED THE

FAMILY TO SELL THEIR BUILDING.

WHEN THE COMMUNITY RAISED $1.64

MILLION TO BUY BACK THE STORE,

THE DEVELOPERS REFUSED TO SELL.

>> THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT THE

LIBERALISM THAT'S REALLY THICK

IN SAN FRANCISCO THAT CAN

SOMETIMES MASK THE OPERATIONS OF

ITS ANTI-BLACKNESS.

THE "SAVE MARCUS BOOKS" CAMPAIGN

WAS REALLY ONE ABOUT SAVING

BLACK SAN FRANCISCO.

>> Sreenivasan: BUT IN OAKLAND,

THE GATHERINGS CONTINUED.

MAYA ANGELOU, MUHAMMAD ALI,

TERRY McMILLAN, NIKKI GIOVANNI,

OPRAH WINFREY AND MANY OTHERS

ALL HELD READING AT MARCUS

BOOKS.

>> I'VE NEVER STOPPED COMING.

I BROUGHT MY GRANDDAUGHTERS DOWN

HERE, AND THEY GET TO SEE HOW

GREAT THEIR PEOPLE WERE AND ARE.