The oldest independent black bookstore in the US, which was located in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, has become the latest collateral damage of the tech boom and is said to be the latest symbol of the black community’s decline in the Bay Area.
Marcus Books’ eviction from its Fillmore Street location — designated a historical landmark — was a devastating blow to an already decimated black community in San Francisco, which has been “displaced and dislocated” by government redevelopment projects and the high cost of housing, according to Reverend Amon Brown, president of the NAACP’s San Francisco chapter.
“It’s death in slow motion of the black community, the Reverend told VICE News over the phone. “Marcus Bookstore was one of the premier cultural and political institutions.”
While Silicon Valley’s billionaires aren’t directly responsible for evicting Marcus Books — the property on which the bookstore sat is owned by local realtors Nishan and Suhaila Sweis — skyrocketing real estate prices are largely due to the immense amount of new wealth created for some by the boom.
“In the last 18 months to two years, there’s been an enormous amount of high tech money coming in [to purchase property] — Facebook, Twitter, and Google, among others,” according to real estate agent Bob Wheeler.
Tech companies have also made it more desirable to own property in San Francisco, according to Wheeler, by providing free shuttle service to and from Silicon Valley — long a symbol of the industry’s hubris.
The current owners of the building, the Sweis family, originally asked for $3.6 million when Marcus Books’ ownership tried purchase it. While the Sweis family eventually buckled to pressure from city officials and community organizations to help the black institution survive, they were only willing drop the price to $2.6 million — well above the $1.85 million in financing Marcus Books organized.
Ultimately the bookstore was evicted after it missed a “couple” of rent payments.
“Materialism rules the day,” the bookstore’s owners wrote in an open letter following the eviction, “That is not news. More often than not, we take it for granted that the ‘bottom line’ is the only line worth respecting, though it respects no one. This is a common conception, but not right.”
The Sweis family bought the building for $1.59 million in 2013 after PLM Lender, a bank, foreclosed on the property. The Fillmore Street location was never listed as “for sale” in a large, commonly used national realtor’s database called Multiple Listing Services, according to Wheeler.
The bookstore owners said there was only one bidder in the “auction.”
A similar property a few doors up the street from Marcus Books sold for $1.486 million back in 2004, when the market was considerably more depressed than it is now, Wheeler said. “Now is a great time to be a seller.”
The Sweis family and PLM Lender did not return repeated phone calls from VICE News requesting comment.
Reverend Brown and other African-Americans VICE News spoke with said that they don’t blame the tech industry outright — or its staggering lack of workplace diversity — for black flight from San Francisco that’s been underway for years. But Brown and others see the industry as yet another example of wealth with no moral and social responsibility to the community.
“[The tech industry] ignores us, we’re an invisible people,” the Reverend said.
The decline in the black population in San Francisco has been gradual and drastic — mirroring what has been happening in other urban black communities, said documentary filmmaker and San Francisco native Kevin Epps. Back in 1970, 13.4 percent of San Francisco was black, and in 2010 that number has dropped to 3.9 percent, according to US Census data.
“People of color are just not wanted in this city,” said Epps.
Since the so-called “urban renewal” projects in the 1950s and 1960s, which resulted in thousands of blacks loosing their homes, other factors for black flight include high crime rates in black neighborhoods, substandard public housing, and dissatisfaction with public schools, a USA Today report concluded.
Marcus Books itself opened in 1960 at another location, and was lifted off its foundation and moved to Fillmore Street by members of the community, which wished to save it from demolition by the city’s redevelopment agency, according to city documents.
Since its opening, the bookstore has hosted events and readings involving some of the world’s most notable black personalities, artists and leaders such as Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Earth Wind and Fire, and Oprah Winfrey.
“Marcus Books was an institution,” said Hugh Gregory also known as HughEMC said. “They were always open to community gatherings… I would just spend time in there, it was like going to the library full of books about my heritage and history that no one else did.”
The bookstore’s Oakland location remains open, but as an elderly Fillmore resident remarked while sitting outside the shop, “How am I going to go to Oakland?”
Follow Max Cherney on Twitter: @chernandburn