This Historic Black Bookstore is Fighting To Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, has forced small business owners nationwide to close their doors as they struggle to hold on to their staff. For one black-owned bookstore, it’s more than just fighting to keep the doors open, but to preserve a piece of African American history.

Marcus Books, based in Oakland, California, is the nation’s oldest black-owned bookstore. It is renowned for its wide collection of African and African American history, culture, music, and literature. Many notable African American figures have patronized the store or hosted readings, including Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley, and Muhammad Ali.

After closing briefly in 2014 due to financial disputes with the building’s owner, the bookstore re-opened in 2016 at a new space in the African American Art & Culture Complex (AAACC).“The pandemic exacerbated the plight of the few remaining black bookstores across the country,” Richardson told USA Today. The independent bookseller currently has a GoFundMe page to help raise money through these uncertain times.

The usually lively store has been silenced by the coronavirus. Staffers take phone orders from the safety of their homes; customers pick up their purchases on-the-go. Owner Blanche Richardson, whose parents founded Marcus Books 60 years ago, now works alone in the store. She dons a protective mask to prepare curbside deliveries for loyal customers.

Bookstores have long faced hurdles to survive, thanks to the rise of Amazon Books and other digital retailers. Many independent booksellers must think of new strategies to compete against their Internet competitors. The COVID-19 pandemic has now accelerated the competition, forcing bookstores like Marcus to operate under quarantine restrictions that has hit their businesses hard.