Marcus Books returning to SF as legacy business as indie stores continue their struggle to survive

    An empty Marcus Books after the eviction
    An empty Marcus Books after the eviction

    By Denise Sullivan

    NOVEMBER 14, 2014 — It’s been said that ghosts haunt the majestic purple Victorian on Fillmore and Post Streets. People who can see such things have reported as much: Translucent figures emerging from walls, in particular an old miner/forty-niner guy, crying to be released from whichever strange netherworld he’s been consigned. No doubt he’s throughly confused by what’s happened to his historically landmarked property, the Marcus Bookstore — darkened for six months now following its eviction and the displacement of the previous owners, Karen and Greg Johnson, and four generations of their family, from their upstairs residence to Oakland.

    Efforts to preserve and protect the building and its contents “by any means necessary” (according to a 2013 Board of Supervisors resolution) following a report by the Historic Preservation Commission proved to be no protection at all from the speculators who purchased the place. The only bidders at the foreclosure auction at which the property was sold, the buyers have yet to do anything with it. Meanwhile, life on the 1800 block of Fillmore goes on, less rich, less literate, and certainly less interesting and alive than before it housed the nation’s oldest operating Black bookstore.

    But tomorrow, Nov. 15, the Johnsons shall return home triumphant: Claiming The People’s Plenary Award at the first annual Howard Zinn Bookfair, they will announce their plans for Marcus going forward: “We expect to re-launch the bookstore in February 2015,” Greg Johnson told me in an email this week, as he confirmed the details on a lease he’s holding at a to-be-disclosed new location. It is also expected the city of San Francisco will play a role in reestablishing the store: It’s a way to highlight the David Campos and Mark Farrell-proposed Legacy Business Registry, a kind of much-needed antidote to the hemorrhaging of small businesses from the city.

    “City Hall has a responsibility to protect successful businesses from the unnatural economic pressures created by the affordability crisis,” said Campos in a statement issued at a press conference last month, announcing the legislation.

    If you’re local small business lover, you know the drill: Your favorite corner store, watering hole or small boutique that serves you daily suddenly and unceremoniously vanishes. According to the report commissioned by Campos and released last month, San Francisco will lose an astonishing 4,378 small businesses this year alone, a sharp increase from the usual three figures annually. So whether you’ve lived here a lifetime, a short time, or some time in between, chances are one of the small businesses you regularly patronize is going to end up on the missing list at some point.

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    The Legacy Business Registry, much like the recently established Legacy Bar and Restaurant program, aims to boost business by directing tourists and newbies to places revered by us locals. But what small business advocates are finding is that guidebooks and bronze placards aren’t enough to keep businesses afloat in an environment where speculative real estate dealings, predatory lending, and a craven urge to disrupt everything that was once holy and sacred–especially in the under-developed neighborhoods—is business as usual.

    Adding further stink to the situation is the replacement of old businesses with shiny simulacra of their former selves and in particular, bars and restaurants (too many, for my taste anyway, with sideways shutters and washboards passing for décor and jars standing in for glassware). What we need are culturally relevant spaces—like bookstores—and we need more, not fewer, of them.

    In a city that once stood for and prided itself on its diverse arts and culture landscape, the facts strongly support the massive disappearance of community and cultural resources: The scarcity of special interest bookstores–a service to all humanity–is alarming, but the city continues to lose these stores and other businesses that once gave us our unique character at rapid clip.

    In hopes of avoiding the kind of evisceration of culturally and community-minded businesses that the Western Addition and Fillmore has seen over 50 years, and especially recently, the neighborhood association Calle 24 (24th Street below Valencia) achieved cultural and historic designation for its district this year. But following the Campos-commissioned report and the undeniable escalation of hostile rent-hikes and evictions, a need was established for something more binding.

    “I am taking the displacement of our small businesses very seriously,” said Campos in his statement last month. The Legacy Business Registry is open to service providers of all kinds that have been established for 30 years or more and demonstrate an importance to the immediate community or to the city as a whole.

    To continue using Calle 24 as an example, the historically Latino district houses long-established arts institutions like the Brava Theater and Precita Eyes, as well as Roosevelt’s Tamale Parlor and La Palma mexicatessen. The street has also become a sort of second home for bookstores, displaced and otherwise; San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguia has suggested it might even become known as “bookstore row.”

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    Lower 24th is where Adobe Bookshop reestablished itself following its displacement from 16th St. (following the Jack Spade wars) and where Alley Cat, an adjunct of Valencia’s Dog Eared, opened in 2011. It is also where the 43-year-old progressive bookseller Modern Times chose to relocate that year in the face of unsustainable rental terms at its longtime Valencia St. location.

    But a pending rent-increase in 2015 puts Modern Times at further immediate risk, although it is currently among the businesses under consideration for legacy status. Certainly there is an argument to be made that the store has filled the gap left by the shuttering of the queer-focused A Different Light in 2011; it is dedicated to serving the Spanish-speaking community and specializes in labor and political economy titles.

    But Modern Times is presently on its last legs, scurrying to restructure in order to survive. Changes in the publishing industry notwithstanding, and before citing failure to adapt to 21st Century business practices or a lack of interest in books by the public–the same accusations waged at Marcus–let us consider this: From the Fillmore to the Mission, the aforementioned small businesses are situated in districts where gentrification is a major contributor to their changing fortunes. What are we going to do as civic and cultural leaders to further help sustain these keepers of our history, holders of community space, and places that light the way for the literacy and enlightenment of our city’s readers of the future?

    Join the discussion on Supporting Local Bookstores in the Time of Gentrification with Denise Sullivan, Karen and Greg Johnson and Kate Rosenberger at the Howard Zinn Bookfair at1:30 PM, Mission High School. Admission is free.

     

    • Sam

      I’m ambivalent here. I love book-stores and don’t like to see them closing. At the same time it’s hardly a shock when small retail businesses close. It’s routine – just look at restaurants.

      So I like the idea of some help for small businesses. What I don’t like about this piece is the way it snidely introduces race and ideology into the equation. Of the examples cited, two have racial overtones (Marcus and Calle 24) while Modern Times also has an ideological bent.

      As I said, I support small book-stores but a single-race book-store leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. If Marcus Books sold only books by whites, the usual suspects here would be howling about racism.

      Nor do I see anything intrinsically more worthy about, say, a Hispanic business over, say, an Asian business. Campos is just playing his usual ugly identity games here.

      Denise, your basic premise is good here, so why tarnish it by inserting card plays into a much broader issue?

    • YAY! I am very happy Marcus Books survives because it nurtures a culture that’s in danger of disappearing from San Francisco.

      • Sam

        What “disappearing culture”? According to the last census, there are 50,000 blacks in San Francisco.

        How many do you think there should be? What’s your optimal racial quota?

        • Sam, the plain fact of the matter is that San Francisco has been bleeding color for over 50 years. The Western Addition and Fillmore were very different neighborhoods before “redevelopment” leveled what were thriving, culturally rich areas.

          • Sam

            That may be, but I could equally point to areas where there used to be “thriving, culturally-rich areas” of whites that are now mostly non-white, like the Mission.

            Things, people, neighborhoods all change over time, and fashions come and go. So at what point in time do you want to stop the music and say that is the racial mix that is perfect, and that it must be frozen for all time?

            And in fact go back to 1940 and there were very few blacks in SF.

    • Sam… go away.

    • Russo

      Sam-John actually called Marcus Books a no-whites-allowed store in another blog. Shows you where this race baiter’s head is at.

      • Sam

        Russo, I’ve never argued that whites were not allowed in that store. As far as I know, they were. In fact, it would be illegal to bar whites from any non-private establishment, as you well know. So you are being mischievous here.

        What I may have argued elsewhere (and I have no recollection of it – nor have you furnished a link) is that I don’t think there is a need to have stores that cater to only one race.

        Now, I get that certain stores have a clientele that is principally of one ethnicity, like an Afro-hair salon or a Chinese food store. But a store that goes out of its way to exclude products or services from one or more races smacks to me of, if not racism, then a distinct and unhealthy racial bias that has no place in a truly post-racial and inclusive society.

        And evidently the people agree, as not enough of them ever shopped there to keep the place viable.

        PS: Lisa, telling me to go makes me more determined to stay. You might want to try another, and more civil, tactic if you wish to silence those with opinions you disagree with but cannot refute.

        • Sam, Marcus Books doesn’t “cater to blacks,” it simply focuses on a subset of literature, it this case black authors. Did you object to A Different Light when it was around with its emphasis on gay authors? What about mystery bookstores? Those exist and they sell nothing but one type of literature. It seems to me if there is a racial bias here, it’s yours.

          • Sam

            I never visited Marcus books but from what I have heard the books were all by blacks, the staff were all black and very few customers were not black.

            If I opened a book-store that only featured white authors can you put your hand on your heart and honestly declare that you’d see no problem with that?

            A book-store that only sells cookbooks or comics is a totally different case because the focus there isn’t on any classification of people, but only of topic.

    • Greg

      The Legacy Business Registry to direct more customers to local businesses is a nice effort, but it doesn’t touch the root cause of the problem: landlord-induced blight. That’s what we’re really talking about here, because most of these businesses fail not because they don’t have enough customers, but because the lease came up for renewal and the landlord got greedy and demanded extortionate rent.

      It’s not about progressive-vs.-conservative. I’ve seen this exact same thing happen with plenty of non-political businesses I’ve grown to love -Ti Couz, Ramblas, Get Lost Books, Coca Bella Chocolates, a unique ethnic grocery in the Richmond district, Andalu, a gas station that was the cheapest place in town for a smog check… the list goes on. Every one of the above businesses was doing just great with or without a Legacy Business Program. In each case, the reason they closed was that the landlord extorted them for more money or decided to build condos.

      It’s the exact same story as with residential rental property -the landlord was making plenty of profit on the old lease, but they saw dollar signs and decided to massively raise the rent just because they can. The real solution, if you want to preserve the neighborhoods, would require the same solution as for residential property: rent control and, ideally, vacancy control. Of course this is something that nobody has the political will to even propose.

      • Sam

        Greg, I’m glad you identified that issues that small businesses have are the same regardless of whether they are politically correct or ideologically pure, or not. that was my original point to Denise in the first comment. She was playing petty partisan politics with an important issue.

        However, there is a paradox in over-simplifying the problem as being about “greedy” landlords. After all, anyone in any business tries to pay the least for their suppliers while charging the most they can to their customers. That is in the nature of any business and wherefrom profit derives. Singling out just one supplier seems unreasonable.

        The sad fact is that any small business is going to be volatile and it is a high-risk proposition. Some tenants are better at negotiating a lease than others, and that is reflected in their greater success.

        Commercial rent control is a non-starter and, in any event, would require changes to state law. It’s not something the city can do, nor am I aware of any popular demand for it. It would simply have the same result as residential rent control i.e. landlords would withdraw.

        • Greg

          As Lisa said on another thread,
          Sam… go away.

          • Sam

            In others words, you can’t refute me, and so you want the teller of inconvenient truths and incisive arguments to vanish and leave you alone with your delusions.

            Not gonna happen. So I strongly encourage you to ignore any post or poster whose arguments cause you a gnawing discomfort.

            • Greg

              I wish there was a right winger who could offer incisive arguments, rather than just the same limited repertoire of repetitive talking points. I’d welcome the debate. Debating you is like debating a LaRouchie cult member.

            • Sam

              But again, you throw out insults but never engage in the topic.

              And when you do, as with your unsubstantiated theory of late ballots, I grind your theory into the dust.