A Conversation With Karen Richardson Of Oakland's Marcus Books

Photo: Meaghan M. Mitchell
By Meaghan M. Mitchell - Published on December 15, 2016.

We've frequently covered Marcus Books store in San Francisco which was best known for its 'jazz roots', and being in the space that was previously a popular nightclub called "Bop City," and frequented by musicians like Billie Holiday and Sammy Davis Jr. While the store is currently transitioning to the African American Art and Cultural Complex after facing foreclosure on their old space, we would like to take you back to Oakland's location where it all started, and has just as much fascinating history.

The store's tagline "offering books for and by black people"  speaks to the mission of the original owners Julian and Raye Richardson. The duo opened the store in 1960 during a crucial time in the civil rights movement when the Black Panther Party and Black Arts Movement established. Marcus Books served as their sanctuary and a resource center for them to gain all the knowledge they needed to feel confident in fighting back against racial inequality.

Photo by Jon Crisp

Now operated by their daughters Blanche and Karen Richardson, the store continues to thrive and keeps up with community engaging traditions by hosting events, supporting local artists and African American authors. Over the years the Oakland store has been visited by prominent African American leaders like Angela Davis and Maya Angelou, to name a few.

Hoodline caught up with Karen Richardson, to talk about what today's culture is like in the community surrounding Marcus Books and how it affects the business:

Has business picked up in the Oakland store, since the hiatus of the San Francisco location?

Karen: It’s interesting because I read some statistics recently that said the number one readers in America are black women. I have noticed since the transition of the San Francisco store, I have witnessed that black people, in general, are reading more again. Oakland has always had a steady clientele, even with ninety- percent of bookstores failing.

What were some of the most notable events hosted at the Oakland's location in 2016?

Karen: Terry McMillan hosted a conversation about her latest book in June called Almost Forgot About You. Terry is a longtime friend of Blanche and we were one of the first bookstores to support her when she wrote her second book called Disappearing Acts. She was running around trying to get support from other bookstores and it was hard, so as she went down her list and and made the call to Marcus Books, Blanche answered and agreed to host her book release, and even picked her up from the airport. The book release had a line down the street and around the corner. She and Blanche have been tight ever since. They have a friendship that is not dependent on the rise of her book sales.

Inside Marcus Books/Photo by Meaghan M. Mitchell

Karen: Emory Douglass who was the minister of culture for The Black Panther party, was traveling all over the world and brought back some Polynesian activists for a discussion on activism in time for the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther movement. What attracted me to them most was their energy  because they had this spirit that made me feel like I was back in the 60’s. They are incredibly connected to their culture. After the discussion, they busted into one of their chants and you can hear the strength and commitment in their voices. I wouldn’t mess with them for nothing.

Bobby Seal of the Black Panthers  & Stephen Shames/ Photo by Jon Crisp

Karen: Bobby Seale, who is the co-founder of the Black Panther Party also hosted an event and shared text from his book, Power to the People: The Word of the Black Panther. He brought along Stephen Shames who’s a photographer and focuses on documenting social issues. We were packed for that event as well.

What kind of events can we look forward to in 2017

Karen: I can’t speak really to events just yet, but do you know anyone who’s brain is still working? Because some people get smartphones and then their brains just mutes. If you are not reading a book you cannot call yourself literate. We want to continue to encourage people to explore the jewelry box that is Marcus Books. We want to see more black youth reading so that they can learn about their culture. We want them to lay off the Disney and help them project their intellect. That is our true focus for next year.

Karen Richardson (left) Blanche Richardson (middle) Pam Moore (right)/Facebook

As a longtime business owner that markets to the black community, How do you feel about the exodus of African American people in Oakland?

Karen: It was scary at first. I wondered where everybody was going and if I was going have to go too. But nowadays, my focus is more on ‘quality’ and not ‘quantity.' Being free and having a good life full of joy and success is the matter of the individual. I believe when a person puts that in their consciousness then everything else falls into place. They are more comfortable in their community because they are not looking for other people to validate them. They are living their truth. I ain't mad at the exodus. 

Outdoor Murals/ Photo by Meaghan M. Mitchell

What’s the community and culture currently surrounding Marcus Books like?

Karen: Well, there is a lot of youthful energy in Oakland that seems to be committed to their culture, and trying to figure who they are and how they are supposed to look. It’s the same people you see in any urban city. When it comes to some of the black youth, I feel like some of them think that being black is about anger, and I wonder why that is, but I can’t knock them for being committed to who they are. Everyone is evolving and we create the safe space for them.

Oakland youth in front of Marcus Books/Facebook

Karen: I have noticed a lot of homelessness and that is bothersome. That’s a reflection on us. Humanity can't just do a drive by. That’s our family out there on the streets. The legacy of this business stems from my parents who in the 40's started their printing company in the Fillmore District. My father couldn’t bear the idea of stepping over his brother who’s on the streets on his way to the bank. He built the elements of this business based on the philosophies of Marcus Garvey which empowers black people. That’s why we named the store after him and that’s why we do this. 

Marcus Books is located at 3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Oakland and open Monday - Saturday from 10am-6pm, Sundays from 10am-4pm. For more information on the store, visit their website. 

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