Entering Marcus Books, the nation’s longest continuously operating independent Black bookstore, is like stepping into living U.S. history. The shop occupies a corner on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in West Oakland. Outside, a faded mural on the garage next to the brick storefront depicts the Bay Bridge, a map of Africa in the colors of the Black Liberation flag, and the aphorism “The answer is N us. The world changes when we do.” Rising from the sidewalk, a series of more-vibrant murals span the right side of the building, featuring Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader for whom the store is named; Malcolm X; Marcus Books founders Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson; and an African drummer. Beside these figures are painted the spines of books by such luminaries as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou (all of whom visited the shop) and several children, relaxing and reading. The interior is equally inspiring. African art and posters of political and cultural figures like Dr. King, Sojourner Truth, Paul Robeson, and B.B. King cover the walls, while bookcases and tables stacked with books are scattered throughout the room. One section is a wonderland of children’s and young adult titles; several nooks hold comics, cookbooks, and inventory for a brisk online trade. The long entranceway displays Black-themed gifts and cards plus plenty of calendars of Vice President Kamala Harris, a daughter of Oakland. The center of the room delivers on what the weathered sandwich board outside promises passersby: “Books by and about Black people everywhere.”

founded in 1960, marcus books is the longest continuously operating black owned bookstore in the united states
Founded in 1960, Marcus Books is the longest continuously operating Black-owned bookstore in the United States. Its founders viewed books and the struggle for Black self-determination as deeply connected. The Oakland store is known for its rich selection of titles by and about Black people.
Penni Gladstone

The Richardsons met at Tuskegee Institute and moved to San Francisco’s Fillmore district a few years after graduation. In 1946, they opened Success Printing Co. and started publishing hard-to-find or out-of-print Black-authored books they’d collected during their travels. In 1960, as the Black Power movement was gaining prominence, they added bookselling and renamed their business Marcus Books. It became a hub of Black literary and political life. The store hosted forums and seminars on race and served as a meeting place for the Black Arts and Civil Rights movements. The Richardsons began providing books to incarcerated people across the country, which would become a long-standing commitment, and even put up their home as collateral to post bail for 100 students arrested during the 1968 protests at San Francisco State University, where Dr. Raye was the chair of the Black Studies Department for decades. Their daughter Blanche, who now co-owns the business, says that her parents viewed books “as intertwined” with the long struggle for Black self-determination.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

The Richardsons opened the Oakland location in 1976 (the publishing arm remained in San Francisco), and five years later, they moved the original S.F. shop into a purple Victorian at 1712 Fillmore Street. The historic building, the former site of Jimbo’s Bop City, a staple in a neighborhood once known as the Harlem of the West for its vibrant Black businesses and huge jazz scene, housed Marcus Books downstairs and some of the family upstairs. A front patio hosted lively musical performances and readings until gentrification led to the Richardsons’ losing the building in 2014. Despite a national outcry and a successful community fundraising campaign, they were unable to meet the new owners’ asking price to buy back the property, and the family was forced to shutter the store.

Bookselling operations continued across the bay, however, and in 2020—a year of global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement—the store celebrated Marcus Books’ 60th anniversary. At a time when just 6 percent of independent bookstores are Black-owned, Marcus Books preserves Bay Area literary history and serves as a beacon to bookstores around the nation.•

Marcus Books

3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, marcusbooks.com

Don't see your favorite book shop? Drop us a line at bookstores@altaonline.com to let us know whom we missed.

Faith Adiele has written two memoirs, Meeting Faith and The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems; two episodes of HBO’s A World of Calm; and sleep stories for the Calm app.