On the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 39th Street in Oakland lies a quaint, red brick bookstore decorated with murals of prominent black figures and tattooed with bold lettering. I spotted Malcolm X on one side of the building and on the other, the outline of Africa accompanied by the virtues “dignity,” “honor,” “respect,” “justice” and “compassion.”
Inside Marcus Books, a wealth of stories echo the same themes—from Maya Angelou’s complete poetry book to James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro and Chimamanda Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists. There are books written by Cornel West, bell hooks and comedian Kevin Hart, greeting cards featuring black models, tote bags and soulful Southern recipe cookbooks.
But on this Monday morning, I was the only patron browsing at the historic African-American bookshop. Even with soft jazz music playing in the background, the air was still. I stumbled upon a Ralph Ginzburg work entitled 100 Years of Lynching, and suddenly the silence was deafening: Voices of color are loud and alive within this bookstore’s walls.
My thoughts were interrupted when the door bells jingled. I turned expecting to find a second customer but instead was greeted by a postal delivery-woman there to drop off a package. After a brief exchange with the shopkeeper, she smiled and left just as quickly as she had entered.
I passed the Black Panther comic books and neared the end of the store, where the checkout stand was positioned. Blanche Richardson sat quietly in front of her computer, wearing dangly gold earrings and a red baseball cap with the words “All of Us or None” embroidered underneath the image of a black fist. She told me she’s been with Marcus Books since its opening—they’re currently celebrating the shop’s 58th year.
For Richardson, this bookstore carries much significance. “It means that the community has its own source of information by and about black folks,” she said.
We chatted briefly, and she chuckled when I asked her what her favorite book is. “I have about 500 of them,” she replied. She pointed to the book on display to her left. It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power—a collection of powerful essays written over the course of the Barack Obama administration. She said that this book in particular is important for people to read today to understand the right approach to racism in contemporary America.
I thanked Richardson for her words before turning and heading back toward the exit. I passed by more titles on slavery, on liberation, on protest movements past and present. Before pushing the door open, I turned to wave a final goodbye before leaving her in the stillness.
But though this tiny bookstore nestled on the corner of a bustling street in Oakland may be quiet, it reminds the community that the history of African-Americans in this country is quite the opposite.