L.A.’s Black booksellers embrace a promising future as Eso Won enters its final chapter
News that Eso Won Books would shutter at the end of the year shocked longtime residents and book enthusiasts across South Los Angeles and beyond. Now, remaining Black booksellers are looking to a future without the bookstore that has anchored the Leimert Park community for 33 years.
Eso Won sits comfortably off Degnan Boulevard. The shop’s readings and signing events have featured A-listers from Issa Rae and Spike Lee to Oprah, and even former president Barack Obama before he took the Oval Office. Acclaimed authors Jacqueline Woodson and Rachel M. Harper even named Eso Won among their favorite Black-owned bookstores for Oprah Daily.
“A bookstore like Eso Won is a treasure because it holds so much more than books—it holds our history, personal and collective,” said Harper.
In June the store’s only employees, James Fugate, 67, and Tom Hamilton, 68 told Publisher’s Weekly it was simply time to move on.
“I’ve been in the book business since 1980, when Reagan was elected president,” said Fugate. Neither co-owner has taken a vacation in more than two years and they’re tired of going in to work in person everyday.
Sika Dwimfo owns a store across from Eso Won that sells African-inspired apparel and jewelry.
Dwimfo said Fugate and Hamilton were inviting neighbors who frequently hung out to share their literary knowledge.
“They read so much, and they can run down each book to you,” explained Dwimfo. “If you want to know something about any type of book, they’ve read it and they could speak on it. You could get a lot of information from them.”
Leimert Park resident and vendor Gyasi Imhotep hopes someone Black will replace Eso Won with another bookstore.
“All good things must come to an end,” said Imhotep. “Eso Won is closing, but it has had such a wonderful presence here and has been appreciated.”
Adaptation is key to survival
Eso Won represents a legacy of Black-owned independent bookstores, including Malik Books which has been around for nearly as long. The first Malik Books store (there are now two locations) opened in 1989 off Manchester Boulevard and Figueroa Street before later moving inside Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. Owner Malik Muhammad recounted what he calls the Black Bookstore Revolution of the ‘90s.
“There were Black bookstores popping up all across the nation,” said Muhammad. “It was conscious books, history books and other Black-leaning books that you couldn’t find at major bookstores. When they realized Black people bought books, that’s when bigger publishing houses started publishing more Black material and making them available in major bookstores.”
The number of Black-owned bookstores across the U.S. peaked at 200 in the mid-1990s, according to research by University of Baltimore history professor Joshua Clark Davis who studies the history of Black bookstores. By 2014, there were only 54. Today, the African American Literature Book Club estimates there are roughly 130 independent Black-owned bookstores operating nationwide. These stores make up about 7% of indie booksellers based on data from the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for independent bookstore owners.
The bookselling industry has been shaken by the rise of online retailers and, more recently, the global pandemic. Muhammad has held firm his stake in Black L.A.’s literary scene by adapting to disruptions and keeping pace with change.
“To stay relevant in this day and time, you have to engage the community, and that’s what we do here at Malik Books,” explained Muhammad. When the outgoing owner isn’t curating a reading list based around some of Nipsey Hussle’s favorite titles, he’s managing exclusive book signings with celebrities-turned-authors including KevOnStage, Omarion and Tabitha Brown.
Muhammad also maintains the store’s active social media presence and produces a weekly podcast. “One of the things that I think has changed the future of every business is technology and social media, so staying on top of both is important.”
Spaces for more than just books
Several new bookstores fronted by Black women have popped up around L.A. in recent years including The Salt Eaters Bookshop in Inglewood and Reparations Club near Jefferson and Crenshaw. The physical and intangible spaces for Black voices, especially from women and LGBTQ+ community, signal a move toward something that’s more than just enjoying literature.
Salt Eaters owner Asha Grant named the store after one of her favorite authors, Toni Cade Bambara. She gained national attention after raising $85,000 on GoFundMe to open the brick-and-mortar store on East Queen Street in 2021. The bookstore began selling some of Grant’s favorite titles, like Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings. Today, Salt Eaters has expanded its selection but still centers the stories of Black women, girls, femmes and gender expansive people.
“I think that Black indie bookstores are not just about buying books,” said Grant. “[They’re also] places where you also spend time or hang out. They are becoming cultural epicenters.”
For Grant, the rise of woman-led Black-owned bookstores represents a bigger picture for Black women entrepreneurs.
“I feel like Black women are really taking back L.A. in a way that’s more community-minded and community-focused,” explained Grant.
That community focus extends to Reparations Club bookstore, owned by Jazzi McGilbert. When it opened in 2019, McGilbert wanted to create a space for Black readers and the queer Black community.
“I had the impulse to build a space for some of that stuff that I wasn’t finding on other shelves,” said McGilbert. Amid the uprisings in 2020 around the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “all those other retail spaces were playing catch-up, and we had already created a space for ourselves.”
McGilbert and her partner spent the pandemic hand-delivering books while the store was closed during shutdown before linking with Amazon rival Bookshop for online sales. Now at its second location, McGilbert hopes to expand Reparations Club to an even larger space eventually.
McGilbert said that despite being initially sad about Eso Won’s closure, hearing that the owners are leaving on their own terms was something that made her proud.