Marcus Books can stay if it can raise $1 million

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Karen and Gregory Johnson, the proprietors of Marcus Book Store
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

Marcus Book Store continues to be threatened with the loss of its Fillmore Street location – but if an ambitious community-based campaign can succeed in raising $1 million by Feb. 28, the institution will be able to remain where it is for the foreseeable future.

At a Thu/5 press conference at the bookstore’s 1712 Fillmore Street location, attorney Julian Davis announced that the bookstore proprietors and the San Francisco Community Land Trust had reached an agreement with the current property owners, Nishan and Suhaila Sweis, enabling the land trust to purchase the property for $2.6 million.

If the money is raised, the property will be transferred to the trust, which will preserve the bookstore as a tenant in perpetuity and keep the upstairs flats as permanent affordable housing.

“This is an opportunity,” Davis told reporters. If the campaign succeeds, “That is going to be a rare victory for retaining cultural diversity in San Francisco.”

Tomiko Johnson, daughter of Karen and Gregory Johnson, said she was proud of her family for securing the agreement.

Marcus Book Store has been facing eviction since earlier this year, when the building was sold to the Sweis family in a bankruptcy sale after a family member of the proprietors got behind on payments after taking out a bad loan.

The new owners operate a taxicab business in San Francisco and had planned on living there, according to Joe Sweis, who spoke at the press conference. But after a wide range of community supporters mobilized to halt the bookstore eviction, “We felt that the best solution was really to just come to the table. We saw that their property meant so much,” Sweis said.

Raising $1 million in less than three months is a tall order, but the land trust is using a new, web-based fundraising tool it hopes will help attract support.

Called FundRise, the tool is similar to a real-estate investment version of the microloan website Kiva.org. It offers some intriguing potential for re-shaping the way real-estate investment happens in practice, particularly in a city like San Francisco where market pressure is so intense that droves of low and middle-income tenants are being priced out.

Taking advantage of new federal financial regulations, it works by allowing anyone – not just bankers or finance professionals – to contribute investment funding of any amount toward property acquisition.

By opening the doors for a broader subset of individuals to invest, the platform can offer greater potential for community residents to pool their resources toward ownership of significant buildings or critical housing.

“It sort of opens up a new power to change the face of a city,” said Ben Miller, who started FundRise three years ago with his brother, Daniel, in Washington, D.C. The brothers said they started it because “The idea that you could invest in a Japanese company but you can’t invest across the street made no sense. I think it’s a revolution in how a city can develop.”

In the case of the FundRise campaign that is being created by the San Francisco Community Land Trust to save Marcus Books, any “accredited investor” who wants to invest in the bookstore can provide a loan in the amount they choose and expect an annual return of four percent.

“We are the first nonprofit affordable housing developer to use this platform,” said Tracy Parent of the Land Trust, adding that the plan is to look to “investors across San Francisco and the nation to achieve this fundraising goal.”

Under federal guidelines, investors are considered “accredited” if they have assets totaling more than $1 million, or an annual income of $200,000 a year or higher.

If Marcus Book Store had more time, it might have been possible to open the door for supporters of any income level to become investors, Miller said. “That usually takes three to four months for regulators to give the green light,” he explained. “February’s too fast – you can’t get the regulators to sign off that quickly.”

But Parent noted that nevertheless, the Land Trust is investigating ways to incorporate contributions from anyone who wants to donate toward the effort of saving Marcus Books, be they accredited investors or not.  

Ever since the prospect of losing Marcus Bookstore surfaced this past spring, neighbors and supporters from the surrounding community have pitched in to help preserve the cultural institution. It is the oldest African American bookstore in the nation, housed in an historic building where, decades ago when it was Jimbo’s Bop City jazz club, luminaries from Dizzy Gillespie to Charlie Parker held late-night jam sessions.

Karen Johnson, a co-owner of the bookstore, remembers when her parents, Raye and Julian Richardson first discovered the building, which had been sitting vacant. “When I found out it was the Bop City building, I figured it was waiting for us,” she said. They had opened the business in 1960 and moved to a series of locations before settling into the Victorian, which averted demolition during redevelopment because it was put on a truck and transported around the corner.

Johnson said she was overwhelmed by support from the community in recent months. “It’s heartwarming, and it’s a witnessing that humanity is still in San Francisco,” she said. “Humanity is a verb,” she added. “You can’t just think it. It’s an action verb.”

Karen Kai is a community member who helped round up supporters for the months long campaign to save the bookstore. When news that the store could be evicted started to spread, “there was such an outpouring,” she said. “People said, we can’t lose this. Because if we lose this, we lose a little piece of our soul.”

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