African-American Bookstore Marcus Books Returns to the Fillmore

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At Marcus Books old location in the Fillmore, Adella Hand, 7, and her sister Kairi Hand, 3, read classic children's books such as Little Red Riding Hood that are illustrated with black characters. (Photo: Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

The nation’s oldest bookstore devoted to African-American themes and authors is re-opening in San Francisco.

Marcus Books lost its home of 33 years in the city’s Fillmore District two years ago in a dispute over rent. But now the African American Art and Culture Complex, in the same neighborhood, has invited Marcus to open a small store in the lobby of the complex. The company still operates a store in Oakland, which opened near the MacArthur BART station in 1976.

Co-owner Karen Johnson says she's been hearing from a lot of people happy about the bookstore’s return.

“The joy that people have expressed is because we get to access that deep creative high consciousness humanity part of our ourselves," Johnson said in a phone interview from Marcus Books in Oakland. "I think that’s what was missing.”

Since its founding in 1960, Marcus Books has moved seven times. Johnson attributes the many relocations to the gradual exodus of black people from San Francisco during the latter half of the 20th century. "With issues about race getting a lot of play right now, its moving was associated with the ending of black people in San Francisco," Johnson said. "But the spirit lives on and then reincarnates in another shell."

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Johnson said the shop at the complex will be tiny -- about one sixth the size of the old bookstore. But there’s one advantage over the old location, Johnson said: she’ll have access to a large theater and conference rooms at the complex for popular author events.

“So it kind of worked out,” Johnson said.