Investors needed to save Marcus Books

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Marcus Book Store continues to be threatened with the loss of its Fillmore Street location — but if an ambitious campaign to raise $1 million by Feb. 28 succeeds, the institution can stay where it is.

At a Dec. 5 press conference, 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 permanent tenant while preserving the upstairs flats as 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."

Marcus Book Store has been facing eviction since earlier this year, when the building was sold to the Sweis family in a bankruptcy sale. But after a wide range of community supporters mobilized to halt the 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 driving the campaign with a new, web-based fundraising tool.

Called FundRise, it's 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.

Taking advantage of new federal financial regulations, it opens the doors for a broader subset of individuals to invest, creating new opportunities for community residents to pool resources toward ownership of significant buildings or critical housing.

"The idea that you could invest in a Japanese company but you can't invest across the street made no sense," said Ben Miller, who started FundRise three years ago with his brother, Daniel, in Washington, D.C. "I think it's a revolution in how a city can develop."

In the campaign to save Marcus Books, any "accredited investor" may 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. Nevertheless, said Parent, the Land Trust is exploring ways to incorporate contributions from anyone who wants to donate.

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 owned 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.

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."