Though today's Oakland-Brooklyn comparisons draw ire for celebrating gentrification, before World War II, West Oakland was known as the Harlem of the West — a much cooler East Coast analogy that doesn't call to mind criminally overpriced coffee, skyrocketing property values, and the displacement of locals. The Great Migration brought thousands of African Americans from the nation's southern states to the East Bay in the early- and mid-twentieth century and gave rise to a community of thriving Black-owned businesses and cultural enclaves, including a storied jazz and blues club scene — something all Oaklanders can be proud of, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.
Today, as gentrification continues to push out Oakland's historical residents — affecting communities of color most severely — it's especially important to patronize small businesses that keep Oakland's diverse communities thriving by providing jobs and specialized services. With that in mind, we've come up with a list of long-standing Black-owned retail stores that not only are great places to shop, but represent pieces of the East Bay's rich cultural history.
3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. MarcusBookstores.com
Like West Oakland, San Francisco's Fillmore neighborhood was once a thriving Black business district — and the home of the original Marcus Books, which Julian and Raye Richardson opened in 1960 out of their print shop, Success Printing. The pair met as students at Tuskegee University. Upon moving to the Bay Area, they found themselves frequently lending out books by Black authors from their extensive home library — prompting them to suspect that there was demand for a bookstore that catered to Black clientele. The couple's hunch was right. After thriving in San Francisco for over two decades, Marcus Books expanded into a second location in Oakland in 1982, where it is now headquartered. (Unfortunately, the store was evicted from its San Francisco location in 2014.)
"We're revolutionary in the fact that we dared open a bookstore for people of color, and Black people in particular," said Blanche Richardson, one of the current co-owners and the daughter of its original founders, in a recent interview.
At Marcus, you can find a broad selection of general interest reads with an emphasis on Black authors and subjects, books for children of color, as well as many rare books that are unavailable elsewhere in the Bay Area. The shop has a first-edition, autographed copy of Toni Morrison's Beloved, as well signed copies of books by Cedric the Entertainer, Patti Labelle, Sister Souljah, and Muhammad Ali.
Over the years, Marcus Books has hosted countless authors and activists. Most recently, it organized a talk by acclaimed scholar Angela Davis at the First Congregational Church of Oakland. Next on its calendar: A book launch for Monique Morris' highly anticipated non-fiction book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, on April 23.
3101 Sacramento Street, Berkeley. ReidsRecords.com
At 71 years old, the gospel music store Reid's Records is one of the oldest Black-owned record stores in the country. And while it's well known that selling CDs and records is no longer as profitable as it once was, the South Berkeley shop has continued to thrive because it caters to an older, more pious clientele than stores such as Rasputin's or Amoeba.
The store's Christian focus is in its DNA. Its founder, Melvin Reid, was the nephew of Paul Reid, the host of Religious Gems, a popular gospel music show on KRE, a local radio station in the 1950s. Thanks to Paul's connections in the gospel scene, the shop quickly attracted a large customer base of churchgoers.
Originally, Reid's Records stocked gospel albums alongside jazz, blues, and funk releases, but in the 1970s it streamlined its focus to gospel to avoid competing with larger record stores — such as the now-defunct Tower Records — that began popping up in the Sixties. Today, the store carries hard-to-find new releases from local and national gospel artists, as well as a large selection of choir robes, bibles, and other church supplies. The Reid family also regularly organizes gospel concerts at various venues around the East Bay.
Uhuru Furniture and Collectibles
3742 Grand Ave., Oakland. UhuruFurniture.Blogspot.com
Founded by the national nonprofit African People's Education and Defense Fund, Uhuru Furniture and Collectibles has been operating in Oakland for more than 27 years. The eclectic secondhand shop helps fund APEDF's various programs that seek to address the educational, economic, and health disparities affecting the Black community in Oakland and other underserved urban areas. For instance, beginning February 28, the organization will host a series of Sunday meetings focused on heath, wellness, and social justice as part of their Health is Freedom fair at Akwaaba Hall, APEDF's community center in East Oakland.
Uhuru Furniture offers a free pickup service for used furniture donations and frequently updates its blog (UhuruFurniture.Blogspot.com) with photos of new items. Whether you're looking for some practical shelving or a vintage rug or colorful, embroidered ottoman to enliven your space, it's an affordable place to shop for your home — and support a worthy cause while you do so.
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