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BookBrowse interviews The Marcus Book Club about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interview (see full list)

The Marcus Book Club

The Marcus Book ClubThis year, the Marcus Book Club of Oakland, California is celebrating its 25th anniversary of reading books by and about Black people. Founding member La Rhonda Crosby-Johnson chats with BookBrowse about the Club’s rich history.

Hi La Rhonda, it’s great to meet you. First up, please introduce yourself and your book club.

Hi. My name is La Rhonda Crosby-Johnson. I am an Oakland, California native, author and a very proud member of the Marcus Book Club. MBC was founded in 1997 by Marcus Books owner, Blanche Richardson because she had just read an amazing book, My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due, and wanted to talk about it.

Wow! So, you’ll be celebrating your 25th anniversary this year?

That is correct! We’ll be marking the milestone in August 2022!

I’m looking forward to hearing about your book club, but can you first tell us about Marcus Books? I know the store has been a Bay Area institution for a long time.

It has! Marcus Book Store is the oldest Black-owned, family-owned bookstore in America, founded in 1960 by Blanche’s parents, Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson. Their first store was in the historic Filmore district of San Francisco, California, and they opened the Oakland store in 1976. The San Francisco store closed in 2014 as a result of rising rents. Despite this loss, Marcus Books has been able to sustain itself in the face of structural racism, recessions, changing neighborhood demographics and global pandemics for over 60 years.

Thank you for giving us a glimpse into the store’s history. How did the Book Club get started and are there any original members left?

There’s just two original members at this point, Yolanda Smith and myself; we take the lead on special events and coordinating monthly meetings. Originally, the Marcus Books Reading Club (later shortened to Marcus Book Club) was divided into chapters that met monthly in the evening. The chapters were named after some of our literary and cultural giants – Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, etc. Chapters joined each other during the summer months for luncheons with authors and special discussions led by Dr. Raye Richardson. Over time, the chapters merged and we now have about 25 active members (with a number of other members continuing to pay dues in support of MBC without attending).

When and where do you meet?

We meet on the third Wednesday of each month. Prior to the pandemic, we met at the store at 3900 Martin L King Jr Way, Oakland; but we’ve been virtual since early 2020. While this bummed us out, it did allow for members who have left the area to join us virtually. We are planning to meet in person for our 25th anniversary. COVID will let us know when, if or how often we can return to in-person meetings in the future.

Back to the bookstore for a moment. I read that Marcus Books started out as a printing company. Could you tell us more?

“Books By and About Black People Everywhere” is the motto and quote you’ll find on Marcus Book Store bookmarkers; and, yes, the printing business predates the bookstore by almost 15 years. Julian Richardson founded the business in the Fillmore district of San Francisco in 1946 with the intent of publishing important out-of-print books by Black authors and works by contemporary authors, poets and artists.

Placing books such as these in the hands of Black people and others is the mission of the book store. It originated when Julian and Raye Richardson would loan books out and never get them back; so, recognizing the need, they turned their printing business into a bookstore, naming it after political activist and author Marcus Garvey.

Marcus Books has always been a place where Black lives mattered, and over the years the store has hosted many Black authors that otherwise wouldn’t have had a place to share their work. If the walls could talk, you would hear the voices of Ishmael Reed, Cornel West, Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Bebe Moore Campbell, Terry McMillan, J. California Cooper, and E. Lynn Harris to name a few. Marcus Book Store reigns supreme as a gathering place for the greats of Black literature and activism.

That's quite a list! How would somebody go about joining the Marcus Book Club?

Membership is open to anyone who wants to read books about and by Black people. MBC members pay annual dues of $25 and receive a 20% discount on MBC monthly selections and 15% off all other bookstore purchases--which makes Marcus Books the ideal place to shop for all occasions! Those who want to join can leave their information at the bookstore front desk. Their contact information is then passed to me and I reach out and extend an invitation.

Can you tell us about a typical meeting?

All members are encouraged to take a turn facilitating discussion. The month’s facilitator offers two to three titles, we vote and the book with the most votes becomes our book of the month. The facilitator is also responsible for developing or finding discussion topics. Our meetings are 90 minutes in length. We usually begin with announcements and a “thumbs up or down” on the book before delving into more complex questions.

You’ll have covered a lot of books over the years, are there any that particularly stand out?

In keeping with the mission of the bookstore, our book club ONLY reads books by and about Black people everywhere. We read all genres. With almost 25 years’ worth of books, it is difficult to name favorites. But we do have some favorite authors. Among them are the late J. California Cooper, Pearl Cleage, Walter Mosley, Jeff Stetson, Leonard Pitts, Jr. Terry McMillan, Attica Locke, Yaa Gyasi, Bernice L. McFadden and Diane McKinney-Whetstone.

Thank you. Does the Book Club do anything together outside of the group, such as volunteering in the community?

The Book Club itself does not but the Marcus Book Store has a long history of community involvement, advocacy and education. The bookstore’s “Bookmates” program provides books to Oakland and Alameda County based non-profit and public organizations. Pre-pandemic, Marcus Book Store was the site and/or sponsor for forums focused on issues of importance to the well-being of the Black community here and abroad.

Do you have any advice for other book groups?

First and foremost, have fun! Find a focus for the group and agree on the key aspects with the core membership. It is important that each member has a voice and rotating facilitation/book selection aids in this. All you really need for a great book club meeting is a book (whether everyone loves it or hates it) and folks who love to talk about the books they have read.

Thank you La Rhonda; it’s been great to spend time with you learning about the Marcus Book Club. I wish you a wonderful 25th anniversary and many more years reading together! —Davina Morgan-Witts, BookBrowse Publisher

Picture shows members of the Marcus Book Club celebrating the launch of Surviving Chadwick by MBC member Phillip Wilhite on the set of a Bay Area book show. From left to right: Montee, Christine Munroe, Deborah Burton, Phillip Wilhite, host, Yolanda Smith, La Rhonda Crosby-Johnson and Dera Williams.

© July 2022.

If you feel that your book group has something unique to offer, and you would like to tell others about it, please contact us with brief details, and maybe we can feature you in the future.

Advice Main Page  |  Starting a Book Club  |  The First Meeting
Leading Meetings  |  Difficult Meetings  |  Choosing Books  |  Inviting Authors
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