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Skirmish with Amazon draws new attention to Bay Area bookstore

Before Jasmine Johnson could walk, her crib was tucked behind the counter of her grandparents’ San Francisco bookstore. By age 6, she was reciting Langston Hughes poems to customers and picking out books for other children. At 12, she marched nervously up to civil rights icon Rosa Parks at a store event to chat.

“At a very young age, we were expected to have opinions, to have veneration for elders and to be well read,” said Johnson, 27, a UC Berkeley doctoral student who is among the third generation to help run Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest African American bookstore.

So it came as no surprise in December when Johnson took a stand on behalf of small businesses nationwide by launching a petition against retail giant Amazon.com.

As part of a holiday shopping promotion, Amazon had offered customers a price break if they used a smart phone app to scan products’ costs in brick-and-mortar stores and then bought them online instead. Although the promotion did not apply to books — Amazon said it was aimed at electronics sold in “major retail chain stores” — it infuriated booksellers long stressed by Internet competition.

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“Marcus Books is still here but it’s a struggle,” Johnson wrote in the petition. The price-check app, she continued, “goes beyond simple competition in a free marketplace. It represents an ugly race to the bottom that … will lead to long-term pain for communities in the form of lost jobs and tax revenues.”

More than 11,000 people so far have signed the change.org petition, which asks Amazon to swear off such promotions and apologize.

That may never happen. But Johnson’s efforts have drawn consumers’ attention and provided valuable publicity for the Bay Area institution founded by Julian and Raye Richardson and now run by a clan that includes Johnson’s mother, aunts, uncle, siblings and cousins.

Marcus Books has been at the center of Bay Area black intellectual, political and civic life for more than half a century, the site of Black Panthers meetings as well as the Bay Area’s first Kwanzaa celebration. The San Francisco store and a second outlet that opened in Oakland in 1976 have hosted prominent authors and activists — Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Muhammad Ali among them.

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Most of all, the business and its determined overseers have offered sanctuary to generations of African Americans, broadening their view of the world and of themselves.

“To see that many books written by and for black people in one place — I could reach for a children’s book, for science, social science, poets,” said Kenneth Monteiro, dean of San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies, who discovered the haven while a graduate student at Stanford.

“They were the keepers of the knowledge who would take the book off the shelf and say: ‘You’re having a personal crisis. Read this poetry.’ ”

Marcus Books also has been a lifeline for prominent black authors such as Ishmael Reed — a link to readers and a source of research. On its shelves, the poet and novelist said, he discovered a book on the son of the first African American U.S. Army general that provided inspiration for his protagonist Chappie Puttbutt in “Japanese by Spring.”

“The kind of work I’m writing has a small audience, and a lot of African American writers are in the same position,” Reed said. “If Marcus Books were to disappear, it would be a great loss to many of us.”

Julian and Raye Richardson opened Marcus Books in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in 1960, not long after the area had been designated as a redevelopment zone. When bulldozers displaced thousands of black residents and businesses, the store — which had been named to honor black nationalist Marcus Garvey — moved as well. But it returned to the street in 1980, setting up in a purple Victorian on the edge of what is now Japan Town.

Julian, who also launched a print shop in 1948 that is still run by the family, died in 2000. Raye, longtime chairwoman of San Francisco State’s black studies department, is 91. She and daughter Blanche Richardson — who runs the Oakland store with her own daughter — live on the Victorian’s second floor. Jasmine’s parents, Karen and Greg Johnson, live on the third. Karen and another of her daughters run the San Francisco store.

In addition to its books, the store houses a smattering of instruments for impromptu jam sessions. Music is in the Victorian’s bones: In the 1950s, before it was lifted off its foundation on nearby Laguna Street, it was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, an after-hours jazz club where John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats played.

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One recent afternoon, Karen Johnson greeted customers in a low, steady voice, engaging them as her mother had done. As she fixed the slightly startled teenage daughter of one customer in her gaze, the questions tumbled out. Do you go to school? What subject do you love? Maybe we’ll carry your book here one day.

She raised her four daughters in much the same way she was brought up, turning the store into their day-care center and its visiting luminaries into teachers. “We were under an umbrella of love and wisdom, which was just preparation for everything,” Johnson, 63, said of her youth.

She recalled that as a teenager, she had come home from school one day to find Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton sitting in the store, looking handsome.

Among her favorite visiting speakers was singer Barry White. He got out of his limousine in front of the Oakland store, she said, and headed inside. “He had this walk, I call it the black man elephant walk, where the head swings slowly,” she recalled. White lumbered in and then proclaimed in his distinctive voice: “This is nice.”

Despite its notoriety, the store has weathered financial hardship. Marcus Books narrowly escaped foreclosure two years ago thanks to community support and fundraising, but still it struggles to stay out of the red.

Johnson is getting her doctorate in African diaspora studies, with the goal of better serving the family business. While spending the last semester as a visiting scholar at Princeton, she has worked from afar to increase the store’s online presence through a Facebook page. Meanwhile, a family friend has produced videos of store readings that will soon be posted on YouTube.

The petition also spurred support.

First-time customers have been drawn by news of Johnson’s efforts: One woman drove two hours to do her Christmas shopping at Marcus Books.

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“That’s really the goal of the campaign,” Johnson said, “hoping … that people are thinking about the future of communities and not just the cheapest deal.”

It is a hope many share.

Ezekiel McCarter, who moved to San Francisco from Texas a year ago, said he had passed the store daily before walking in a few months ago and forging an instant bond with Karen Johnson. Now he drops by daily.

If he’s feeling down, the 19-year-old said, Johnson will pick out a book that makes him think.

“As soon as I came in here, I felt at home,” he said. “People say you go to college to network. Well this is like a college. This is home base for everyone.”

lee.romney@latimes.com


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