Oakland's Marcus Books still thrives as nation's oldest black bookstore

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Marcus Books has been a Bay Area staple for decades and it continues to thrive in Oakland as the nation’s oldest black bookstore.

Marcus Books has always been family owned. Dr. Julian Richardson and his wife, Dr. Raye Richardson, founded the bookstore in 1960 in San Francisco’s Fillmore district inside their printing shop. It was originally called Success Book Store, but they later changed the name to Marcus Books, after political leader and publisher, Marcus Garvey.

Karen Johnson is now a co-owner of Marcus Books with her siblings. She recalls when their father wanted to open the bookstore in his printing shop.

“My dad in his print shop would want to share books with his friends and never got his books back so he said, ‘Let’s start selling books,’” Johnson said. “I asked him, ‘Will white people let you sell black books?’ He said, ‘It’s not about them. This is what we need.’”

Johnson said the bookstore has long prided itself on being a bookstore “for and by black people.” The family opened an Oakland location in the 1970’s near the MacArthur BART station.

After more than 50 years in business and multiple relocations, the family closed its San Francisco bookstore in 2014 due to rising rents. It continues to look for a home in the city, but the Oakland location is still going strong.

On a Tuesday afternoon in February, KTVU found teacher librarian Maureen Sullivan shopping at the store. She came to find books for her students that larger publishers don’t have.

“I used to go there when it was in the Fillmore,” Sullivan said. “It’s an institution. It’s too bad that it’s no longer in San Francisco and there’s hope that will happen again. I’m really glad that Marcus Books still thrives in Oakland.”

Sullivan bought more than two dozen books for her students for Black History Month. 

New authors also visit the store regularly. Daud Jadi, a former tech manger in Silicon Valley, quit his day job a few years ago to write his first novel. The book is called Requesting a Friend. Jadi said it’s an unconventional love story and he hopes his novel makes it on the shelves at Marcus Books.

“I’ve known about this place since college,” he said. “For me it was a natural thing, a natural progression, to come here first because if I can get my book in Marcus Bookstore then I’ve accomplished something in my life.”

Johnson said many authors and celebrities have graced the bookstore with their presence over the years. Some of the patrons, writers, and speakers include Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Barry White, B.B. King, and Patti LaBelle. Marcus Books also provided meeting spaced that spawned the Black Firefighters Association, the Association of Black Policeman, the Black Nurses Association, and many more organizations.

Johnson said Marcus Books has allowed people to discover their history, strength, and creativity, She said it continues to be a place where black people and other progressives can feel at home.