A life path that took her from Iowa to West Africa to the halls of Congress to the civil rights-era Deep South to UC Santa Cruz informed Gwen Marcum as she built a community centered around the Capitola Book Café. Marcum died in April at age 86.
As the year draws to a close, Lookout Santa Cruz looks back at the prominent people Santa Cruz County lost during the year in “Remembrance 2022.” Our series began with longtime Watsonville teacher and civil rights activist Mas Hashimoto and continues with former bookseller and community activist Gwen Marcum.
Back in the BIRE days — that would be “Before the Internet Ruined Everything” — any ambitious bookstore would work to maintain an extensive periodical section. And as many longtime locals might tell you, the newspapers and magazines selection at the now-defunct Capitola Book Café was a thing to behold.
Certainly, regulars at the Book Café would show up each morning — especially Sundays — to get their hands on the latest New York Times, but the newspaper racks went far beyond even that. If you were so inclined, you had the chance to scan the Sydney Morning Herald or Le Monde, straight from Paris. And the magazines? The diversity of titles was dizzying. A curious soul could spend close to an hour with the magazines, right there by the front window, without even venturing into where the actual books were.
This playland of news and culture was the realm of Gwen Marcum, one of four co-owners of the Capitola Book Café for more than 25 years. If you visited the Book Café and asked Marcum about the latest mystery or fantasy novel, she might have pointed you to someone else. But if you wanted to talk newspapers or magazines — or the current events that kept those publications in business — she would have all the time in the world for you.
Marcum — who died in April at the age of 86 — was co-owner of the Capitola Book Café from near its opening in 1980 to 2007, with her friends and partners Marcia Rider, Kathy Kitsuse and Judy Stenovich, a quartet affectionately known in local literary circles as “The Ladies.” The beloved mid-county bookstore lingered a bit under a different ownership group before closing its doors permanently in 2014.
Each of the partners in the Book Café had her niche, and Marcum’s was clearly oriented toward the sociopolitical world. In a way, she was representative of a certain pre-baby boom generation of political progressives that came to characterize Santa Cruz County after the University of California came to town.
She was originally an Iowa farm girl who traveled widely, lived in Africa for a while, worked in Washington, D.C., and was indeed in the crowd of about a quarter of million people near the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in person.
From her perch at the Book Café — located where the CineLux theater now sits in a small shopping center off 41st Avenue — she cultivated a kind of cosmopolitan familiarity with what was going around in the world while maintaining a discreet Midwestern brand of modesty.
“She was very humble about what she knew about the world,” said Gwen’s daughter, Andrea Marcum. “And she always enjoyed intelligent conversation, but brought people to those intelligent conversations without dumbing anything down. She just made everyone feel welcome into an intellectual conversation or a political conversation.”
Marcum also brought the world to Capitola in the form of living, breathing authors. She was instrumental in bringing in brand-name authors and celebrities to the Book Café, including Salman Rushdie, Anne Rice, David Sedaris, Michael Moore and countless others. Laurie R. King, one of Santa Cruz’s most successful writers, credits Marcum for helping her launch her career as a novelist. King and Marcum had become friends when both were the wives of UC Santa Cruz professors.
In 1993, King mentioned to her friend that she was about to publish her first novel. “The first thing she said was, ‘Oh, let’s do an event,’” remembered King, “which was amazing to me, because I certainly didn’t want to inflict myself on the book world.”
As a gesture of gratitude, King launched nearly every one of her subsequent novels at the Book Café before it closed. “They were always perfectly lovely,” said King of her various events at the Book Café. “They were super community-focused, and an awful lot of that was Gwen’s doing. She built a community up at UCSC, and she built a community at the Book Café.”
Gwen Marcum grew up in the small town of Menlo, Iowa, where she was a 4-H kid — a 1956 photo of her with her prize-winning steer, Sparky, still hangs in a Texas steakhouse. Later, she went to Ghana in West Africa on a student exchange.
Eventually, she made her way to Washington, where she earned a master’s degree in political science at American University. In Washington, she worked in the office of Sen. Albert Gore, the former vice president’s father, and met (and eventually married) Africa scholar John Marcum. In the 1960s, she devoted her efforts to civil rights activism, participating in the “Freedom Summer” as one of the many volunteers who went into the Deep South to register people to vote.
The Marcums moved to Santa Cruz in 1972, where John Marcum accepted a faculty position and became the first provost of Merrill College at UCSC. For Gwen, being the wife of a university provost meant developing social skills and community-building know-how that served her well later when she became a co-owner of a bookstore, said Laurie King.
“[As wife of a provost], you have to be an adept administrator, a careful accountant, an emotionally attuned counselor, a guidance person for someone’s future,” said King. “I mean, all those things [came in handy] at the bookstore, where someone might say, ‘What is there to read?’ Well, you have to do an analysis of the person to find out what they’re interested in, and then give them something that will change their lives.”
Marcum engaged in the Santa Cruz community in other ways as well, most notably as a youth sports coach, specifically in girls’ basketball, which was a particular passion of hers.
Through it all — the hard truths of growing up on a farm, the enlarged perspective of living abroad, the insights from working within the government, the experiences in the South during the civil rights era, the demands of the role of a university administrator’s spouse, the turbulence and hard choices of being a independent small-business owner, and 80-plus years of accumulated experience — Gwen Marcum learned a thing or two about how the world works, and she was always eager to share it.
“She was just devoured current events and news and headlines,” said Richard Lange, a longtime employee at the Book Café who later became part of the ownership group that took over for The Ladies. “She had the inside scoop on this or that. She knew more about how Congress worked and could name more people in Congress than anybody I knew. But, the flip side of that, Gwen was always extremely modest. Trying to get her to [talk about her accomplishments] was like pulling teeth.”
When Lange first came to the Book Café as a 22-year-old, he said, he was poorly read and inexperienced in the world of books. But Marcum was there to provide him guidance and mentorship. “I was really rough around the edges,” said Lange. “I had read nothing. And I was just kinda out of my element. And Gwen just treated me like a grown-up, and took me seriously as a reader. She cared about what I thought about things. And that was a very encouraging experience.”
Andrea Marcum, like all of Gwen’s three children, worked in her mother’s bookstore for a while in her youth. (She is planning to move back to Santa Cruz County in 2023 after years in Southern California.) She remembers her mother taking great satisfaction in her role as a kind of curator of the Book Café’s periodical section, not so much for the great diversity and breadth of it, but because of what she could deliver through it to certain people she knew.
“When a magazine didn’t sell,” said Andrea, “you would rip the cover off it and send back [the cover] for credit. And I just remember she would have all these skeletal leftovers [of magazines]. And she would always know who would love to read what from these leftover magazines. And there were always boxes and boxes of these things in the hallway of our home, ready to go out to people who she was sure would be interested in them. She knew what people would care about. She was really gifted at that.”