Innovative Investment Plan Could Save San Francisco’s Marcus Books

Marcus Books owner Karen Johnson and her daughter Tamiko Johnson in front of their store. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)
Marcus Books owner Karen Johnson and her daughter Tamiko Johnson in front of their store. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Community activists in San Francisco are teaming with a new grassroots investment network to try to save the longtime Fillmore Street home of Marcus Books, the historic African-American bookstorethat has faced eviction since earlier this year.

Marcus Books and the San Francisco Community Land Trust announced a deal Thursday with the owners of the store’s famous lavender Victorian to acquire the property for $2.6 million.

The deal is a little complicated: $1.6 million will come from Westside Community Services, a health-services group. The land trust will try to raise the remaining $1 million through Fundrise, a Washington, D.C.-based grassroots-funding startup that allows small investors to buy stakes in real-estate developments and business ventures. The full $2.6 million needs to be raised by next Feb. 28, or the San Francisco location of Marcus Books (it has a second location in Oakland, a block from MacArthur BART), will be out on the street. If the fund-raising effort succeeds, then the land trust will own the building and Marcus Books will continue as a tenant “in perpetuity.”

The San Francisco store, opened in 1960 by Raye and Julian Richardson and now operated by their children and grandchildren, wound up in bankruptcy after taking out a high-interest loan during the real estate bubble. Karen Johnson, one of the Richardsons’ daughters, said she believes the community movement to save the store holds a larger meaning. “Humanity is being rekindled … and this is a sign that people like wisdom and compassion and taking care of other people.”

The land trust’s Tracy Parent says the Fundrise model may prove to be a valuable tool for those looking for ways to save affordable housing amid the rapidly escalating prices in today’s housing market.

“This will be a very important and significant community campaign and effort as a pilot project, which could hopefully open the door for future community investment in our neighborhoods,” Parent said during a press conference at the bookstore Thursday. The trust has used Fundrise to help finance three other affordable-housing projects in the city, including a 21-unit building on Columbus Avenue in North Beach.

The campaign to save Marcus Books “is going to be a rare victory for retaining cultural diversity in our city at a time of increasing economic displacement,” said Julian Davis, attorney for the store.

He went out of his way to give credit to the building’s owners, the Sweis family of South San Francisco, for being willing to make the deal. The Sweises bought the Marcus Books building for about $1.59 million in a bankruptcy sale, then refused an initial offer of $1.65 million from Westside Community Services for the property and started eviction proceedings against the store.

“It’s really important to set the record straight,” Davis said, “to recognize the Sweis family are not the Wall Street speculators they were occasionally they were portrayed to be and that there were many factors outside the control of the Sweis family that led to the potential displacement of Marcus Books.”

Christine Hsu of KQED News contributed to this post.

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Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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