The Campaign That Saved the Oldest Black Bookstore in America
An interview with one of its co-owners on the coronavirus and the importance of indie bookstores in the digital age
One industry that has been astronomically hit by the Covid-19 pandemic is publishing. Authors have had to cancel book tours or postpone book releases, and independent bookstores across the nation have been fighting to stay open. One in particular is Marcus Books, America’s oldest Black bookstore. Started by Drs. Raye and Julian Richardson in 1960, the Oakland, California, bookstore — which was named after Marcus Garvey, leader of the Pan-Africanist movement — is a staple in the Black literary community, where its visitors include stars such as Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, Bobby Seale (co-founder of the Black Panther Party), and Toni Morrison, among many others. It has also hosted events for both debut and established authors like Dr. Angela Davis and Terry McMillan.
As a celebration of the bookstore’s 60th anniversary, Folasade Adesanya, creator of The Black Syllabus, created a $50,000 GoFundMe campaign to save Marcus Books from closing amid the pandemic. Several others across the nation have done the same, with goals ranging anywhere from $2,000 to $100,000. After a massive initiative across social media channels, Marcus Books was able to surpass its goal, but the fight is still not over, as this bookstore exists in a highly gentrified city, and the rent prices do not show any sign of coasting.
I spoke with one of the owners, Blanche Richardson, whose parents were Marcus Books’ founders.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
ZORA: When you saw that the coronavirus was spreading quickly, were you worried about what was going to happen to Marcus Books?
Blanche Richardson: My father passed in 2000. In February of this year, my mother died at age 99. Our family was still stunned by the death of our beloved matriarch when the pandemic hit the U.S. Our concern following the lockdown in California was first for our health and well-being, and second for the sustainability of this 60-year-old institution. The memorial we had planned for Dr. Raye had to be canceled, to the disappointment of her…