The standing room only audience is enraptured as they sit on the edge of their seats on a warm, late August evening, engrossed in Eric Jerome Dickey’s animated talk about his new book, Resurrecting Midnight. He was explaining his writing process and research while living in Argentina for three months to capture a sense of place for his adventure-packed novel.
This is a typical occurrence at the Marcus Book Store in Oakland, California, where on any given evening one might find any number of former Black Panthers-turned-authors exhorting about the heyday of the Panther party; or a panel discussing the exploitation of African American ball players provoked by William Rhoden’s book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves. Marcus Book Store, founded by Tuskegee Institute graduates, Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson in 1960 in San Francisco is the oldest black-owned book store in the country. The Oakland stored opened in 1976 on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Independent book stores are a dying breed in the U.S., particularly those who specialize in books by and about peoples of African descent. An Oakland landmark, Marcus Book Store has managed to stay in business because of their relentless commitment to equality and justice to the community.
The Marcus Book Club meets at the store on the third Wednesday of the month to discuss a wide range of fiction and nonfiction titles. One particular session had Dr. Raye, former department chair of Black Studies at San Francisco State, facilitating a discussion on the formidable classic, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Under Dr. Raye’s tutelage, we delved deeper into the text forging out hidden types and shadows we had not grasped with our previous reading. Long-time customers from Sacramento and scholars from Stanford come to the store for special orders of out-of-print texts on African civilization and hard to find slave narratives. Renowned authors Michael Eric Dyson and Walter Mosley draw such huge crowds that it necessitates having their book signings at a nearby church to accommodate a diverse population. Authors from all over the country consider it a rite of passage to have a book signing at Marcus. Novelist Paule Marshall, a New Yorker has been trying to get to the store for forty years and finally made it this past spring when she delighted audiences with her recently released memoir, Triangular Road.
Marcus Book Store is now a four generation family operation, a fixture in the community, still called upon by several organizations and institutions to supply them with books and to host book events. Community, culture, family and education are what Marcus Book Store reflects, an American institution.
Dera R. Williams, November 5, 2009.