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Marcus Books: The wealth-hoarders and land-stealers change the locks on Black history in San Francisco

May 13, 2014

Oldest Black book store in US raises $250,000 to buy back the store and still gets locked out

by Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, daughter of Dee

Marcus Book Store, 1712 Fillmore St., San Francisco

Marcus Book Store, 1712 Fillmore St., San Francisco

“We got a funky low-down feeling, but we rock steady,” said Greg Johnson, Marcus Books co-owner, addressing a press gathering – Channels 2, 3 and 7 were there, along with KGO and KPFA, and KQED and the SF Bay Guardian conducted follow-up interviews – at Meadows Livingstone School in San Francisco yesterday. He was harkening back to the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, when he described the struggle of Marcus Book Store to stay in the Fill-no-more District of San Francisco.

The undisputed flagship of Black history and literature, Marcus Books, housed in the original home of Jimbo’s Bop City, is currently fighting to stay alive in San Francisco, which might now be known as the undisputed pinnacle of wealth-hoarding and displacement.

Supporters remain determined to keep Marcus Books alive in San Francisco: From left, an unnamed supporter, Denise Sullivan, Gail Meadows, Grace Martinez, Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia), Tony Robles, Greg Johnson and Karen Johnson. – Photo: Poor News Network

Supporters remain determined to keep Marcus Books alive in San Francisco: From left, an unnamed supporter, Denise Sullivan, Gail Meadows, Grace Martinez, Tiny (Lisa Gray-Garcia), Tony Robles, Greg Johnson and Karen Johnson. – Photo: Poor News Network

“They locked us out of our home,” he sighed. The recent unjust tragedy that inspired the press conference started last Tuesday when my own recently gentrified (out of the Mission) eyes were gazed up at by the tear-filled 6-year-old eyes of the grandbaby of the Marcus Books family, who is also a youth skola at POOR’s Family Project, relating the recent injustice of their long-time family store being locked out by the “new owners.”

“They (Nishan and Suhaila Sweis, owners of Royal Cab, Big Dog Cab and dispatch for City Wide Taxi Co.) bought the bookstore for $1.6 million and now want us to buy it back for $2.6 million. We had a little more than one month to raise a million dollars. We were able to raise $250,000 and they locked us out anyway,” Greg Johnson explained.

“Contrary to several media reports, Marcus Books is not in bankruptcy. It is a thriving business and we have no plans to close our store,” he declared.

“Contrary to several media reports, Marcus Books is not in bankruptcy. It is a thriving business and we have no plans to close our store.”

Karen Johnson, co-owner of Marcus Book Store of San Francisco, calls on San Francisco leadership to save the oldest Black book store in the country. – Photo: Poor News Network

Karen Johnson, co-owner of Marcus Book Store of San Francisco, calls on San Francisco leadership to save the oldest Black book store in the country. – Photo: Poor News Network

“Black history is everyone’s history,” said Karen Johnson, co-owner with Greg and their daughter, Tamiko, and daughter of Drs. Raye and Julian Richardson, founders of Marcus Books. She then gave the crowd a powerful lesson in African deep structure and the ways in which this sale of this historical landmark is emblematic of the material values that are guiding the world in this terrifying and destructive time of rampant displacement and removal.

Karen’s herstory brought my strong Black-Indian Mama Dee into the small room at the Afro-centered Meadows Livingstone School. She and I learned so much of our own herstory that this white-supremacist world never teaches from the books and culture at Marcus Books.

The values of our indigenous, multi-racial, multi-cultural ancestors are buried under settler colonial teaching doled out to poor folks like my mama and me in schools, orphanages and jails, where so many of us po’ folks are sent to live and where, if we’re lucky, we find and breathe in the books and art and voices that have circulated out of Marcus Books for generations. We often say there would be no POOR Press without Marcus Books.

“My family was displaced from the Fillmore district, and now this City, where my entire family has spent their life, is telling us that they don’t want us here,” said Tony Robles, board president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation and co-editor of POOR Magazine. Tony went on to propose that the eminent domain concept that allowed the Redevelopment Agency to steal tens of thousands of Black families’ homes in the ‘60s and ‘70s behind the first wave of “Negro removal” be used to take back the Marcus Books building from the Sweis family, who have only bought it now to profit off of it, which in and of itself is a crime of culture and life.

The eminent domain concept that allowed the Redevelopment Agency to steal tens of thousands of Black families’ homes in the ‘60s and ‘70s behind the first wave of “Negro removal” be used to take back the Marcus Books building.

“We are asking Mayor Ed Lee to step up and actually do the right thing and save this crucial landmark we all need,” Greg Johnson concluded. The press conference was organized by Grace Martinez of ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment) and also included the powerful voices of Grace Martinez, Gail Meadows, founder of Meadows Livingstone School, and Denise Sullivan.

“We are asking Mayor Ed Lee to step up and actually do the right thing and save this crucial landmark we all need,” Greg Johnson concluded.

The Johnson family is planning a series of actions to fight this unjust removal, but for now readers can call Royal Cab and tell the Sweis family to sell Marcus Books back to the Johnson family. To find out about the next actions to save Marcus Books, email sfacce@calorganize.org.

Tiny – or Lisa Gray-Garcia – is co-founder with her Mama Dee and co-editor with Tony Robles of POOR Magazine and its many projects and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America,” published by City Lights. She can be reached at deeandtiny@poormagazine.org. Visit www.tinygraygarcia.com and www.racepovertymediajustice.org.

Hey! They put a boot on my store!

Marcus Books of San Francisco evicted

Open letter from the Johnson family

Dear supporters:

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 St.

Tony Robles, co-editor of POOR Magazine and board president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, stands strongly in support of Greg Johnson and his family, owners of Marcus Books. – Photo: Poor News Network

Tony Robles, co-editor of POOR Magazine and board president of Manilatown Heritage Foundation, stands strongly in support of Greg Johnson and his family, owners of Marcus Books. – Photo: Poor News Network

Marcus Books missed a couple of mortgage payments – not such a rare thing considering that at the same time the largest U.S. 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 has 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 – we are the co-owners of Marcus Books of San Francisco – has been trying to buy the building back for a year and half.

The Sweises bought our building in a bankruptcy “auction” – apparently, they were the only bidder – for $1.6 million. We offered them $1.8 million, but the Sweises set their price at $3.2 million, hoping to double their purchase price after a few months’ ownership.

After some public outrage resulting in public protests against the Sweises, negotiations 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.

Gail Meadows, founder of Meadows Livingstone School, speaks in support of Marcus Books. – Photo: Poor News Network

Gail Meadows, founder of Meadows Livingstone School, speaks in support of Marcus Books. – Photo: Poor News Network

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 counsel, Carlos Levexier’s “Keep It Lit” campaign committee, the local literary community, including writers and other bookstores, and 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 $1.6 million. Though by any standards that would have been more than enough for a down payment, the Sweises’ 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 five years of efforts by John Templeton, the leading author and expert in Black California history, Greg Johnson, co-owner of Marcus Books of San Francisco, and 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 Black business surviving 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.

Students at Meadows Livingstone School know the value of their Black heritage that has long been housed at Marcus Book Store. – Photo: Poor News Network

Students at Meadows Livingstone School know the value of their Black heritage that has long been housed at Marcus Book Store. – Photo: Poor News Network

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 about 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 farther between. At the top of The Tree, at the stratum of the clouds, quantity has morphed 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’s fall.

Cross Section

by Karen Johnson © 1997

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.

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

… to be continued

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

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