On stories of Black struggle, an iconic L.A. bookstore surges

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“One of the amazing things that’s happening with Eso Won Books is this is a multiracial attempt to understand the Black experience,” says Alaina Morgan at USC. “Books can change people’s minds; they can change people’s lives.”

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Janet Chapman, a retired school principal, talks with James Fugate, co-owner of the Black bookstore Eso Won Books in Los Angeles on June 8, 2020. He explains that Eso Won means "water over rocks."

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America, it seems, wants to educate itself about the Black experience.

“This is a huge moment for Black bookstores all over the country,” says James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles. He pops onto the website of a book distributor and reads off orders for “How To Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi: 10,000 in Oregon, 6,000 in Tennessee, 8,000 in Indiana, almost 9,000 in Pennsylvania. “That’s remarkable, incredible.”

The name Eso Won stems from the Egyptian city of Aswan, a gateway on the Nile River, and means “water over rocks.” The narrow store with the high ceiling is a gateway as well, located in Leimert Park, the epicenter of Black culture in Los Angeles.

Bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it his favorite bookstore. It hosted an unknown Barack Obama in 1995 for a signing of “Dreams From My Father.”

Mr. Fugate says that the store does have multiracial customers – thanks to its longtime presence at the Los Angeles Times book fair. Not a day goes by without a white, Latino, or Asian reader coming into the store. But on a recent Monday, African Americans were the minority among the mostly young visitors.

“We’re going to reach more audiences,” he says.

Tom Hamilton is on the phone again. It has been ringing steadily since this Black-owned bookstore, Eso Won Books, opened at 10 a.m.

“No, we don’t have any right now,” he answers calmly. The caller is inquiring about “The Fire Next Time,” the powerful 1963 bestseller in which Black author James Baldwin writes his 14-year-old nephew about race in American history. “We should have it by the end of the week. We’re going to get 300 or 400 copies. Just call us.”

Mr. Hamilton and his business partner, James Fugate, are working morning, noon, and night to handle an explosion of demand for books on racism, African American history, and Black literature in the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd. They’ve had to temporarily halt new orders on their website to catch up on back orders. One week of sales last week equaled March and April combined. On June 8, a stream of ethnically diverse customers browsed and bought at this landmark store in South Los Angeles.

America, it seems, wants to educate itself about the Black experience.

“This is a huge moment for Black bookstores all over the country,” says Mr. Fugate. He pops onto the website of one of their book distributors, Ingram Content Group, and reads off the orders for “How To Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi: 10,000 in Oregon, 6,000 in Tennessee, 8,000 in Indiana, almost 9,000 in Pennsylvania. “That’s remarkable, incredible.”

A gateway to Black culture

The name Eso Won stems from the southern Egyptian city of Aswan, a gateway on the Nile River, and means “water over rocks,” explains Mr. Fugate. The narrow store with the high ceiling is a gateway as well, located in Leimert Park, which is considered the epicenter of Black culture in Los Angeles. It’s in the same block as a jazz and blues museum.

Bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it his favorite bookstore. It hosted an unknown Barack Obama in 1995 for a signing of “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.” That event drew about 10 people, and Mr. Obama suggested they put their chairs in a circle and just talk. When his next book, “The Audacity of Hope,” came out, it was Eso Won that the rising politician wanted. He couldn’t remember the name of the little store, but that’s the only one he would consider in LA.

African American bookstores are an “oasis, a little safe space of intellectualism,” where Black people can go and talk about ideas, read about their history, and imagine alternative realities, says Alaina Morgan, an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California. They are not places where other people typically go, says the specialist in the African diaspora.

“One of the amazing things that’s happening with Eso Won Books is this is a multiracial attempt to understand the Black experience,” she says. “Books can change people’s minds; they can change people’s lives.” She points to her students, who tell her that books like “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander have completely reshaped their thinking on race in America.

Mr. Fugate says that the store does have multiracial customers – thanks to its longtime presence at the Los Angeles Times book fair. Not a day goes by without a white, Latino, or Asian reader coming into the store. But last Monday, African Americans were the minority among the mostly young visitors. “We’re going to reach more audiences,” he says.

“I want to educate myself”

Phoebe Zerouni and Kaylee Elijah are working their way around the store as jazz piano music gently circulates with them. They are best friends from high school, where they read two novels by Toni Morrison. One was “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s first, and the other was “Beloved,” which won her the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993.

Now the friends are students at the University of California and are on the hunt for nonfiction.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Kaylee Elijah, a student at the University of California, picks up a copy of "Hip Hop & Rap" at Eso Won Books, a Black-owned bookstore, in Los Angeles on June 8, 2020.

“I came here to educate myself,” says Ms. Zerouni. “I grew up in a white family. I’ve absorbed unseen prejudices.” She says she wants to be a “better ally” to African Americans.

The two found out about the bookstore on a social media thread identifying local Black businesses to support. Ms. Elijah, who describes herself as Latina Indian, picks up the paperback “Hip-Hop & Rap.” She’s studying anthropology.

In the 1970s, Janet Chapman, a retired principal, was an anomaly as a white teacher in Black South-Central Los Angeles. “I’ve known about this bookstore forever,” she says, sporting a Morehouse T-shirt and Lakers mask. Still, this is her first visit – inspired by last week’s drop-in by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

She buys a children’s board book about the Obama family – for her yoga instructor’s kids – and inquires about another popular title: “White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin DiAngelo. Mr. Fugate reaches into a cardboard box of newly arrived books and pulls out a copy. Sold.

“I’ve been amazed at the people coming into the store, and just the pleasant conversations with everybody,” he says. He loves acting as a reference for good books, and did his best to help Shaina Sanchez in her quest to find a book that will help Asian Americans “struggling to understand how their experience parallels that of African Americans.” She is Filipino American.

He found himself at an impasse: His recommendation was “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan,” by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard, “but we don’t have it.”

That didn’t stop Ms. Sanchez and her partner, Rodney Wright, from buying an armful of books. Mr. Wright, a musician who goes by the name “Vinci,” is promoting an Instagram campaign, #bobchallenge, to buy from Black-owned businesses for seven days straight. Growing up “in the hood” in New York, Mr. Wright – who is Black and Puerto Rican – says his knowledge of Black history was pretty much limited to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and the freeing of the slaves.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor
Shaina Sanchez and Rodney Wright display books purchased at Eso Won Books, a Black-owned bookstore in Los Angeles, on June 8, 2020. Mr. Wright was promoting an Instagram campaign, #bobchallenge, to buy from Black-owned businesses for seven days in a row.

Which is exactly why Kelisa Lewis walked a mile to this bookstore. The 30-something transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area came away with a book on the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican activist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement. Since she loves poetry, she also bought a collection by Langston Hughes.

“Some African Americans, we don’t know a lot about our past,” she says. “Let me do my part, and educate myself.” After all, “you want the backstory, so you have a better sense of self.”

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books, recommends:

“Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Georgetown University. Mr. Fugate likes that it has solutions.

“Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” by Monique W. Morris. As Mr. Fugate notes, “Kids are kids, but somehow Black girls end up more in detention that white females.”

Alaina Morgan, assistant professor of history at the University of Southern California, recommends:

“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Margaret Alexander, about racial discrimination in America’s criminal justice system.

“The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in The Atlantic, about America’s debt to African Americans.

Both selections “completely reshaped” the way her students thought about race, she says.

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