It Takes a Community to Raise a Bookstore
Can a community be silenced by construction?
Imagine a place of safety, of community, of culture. Eso Won Books, an independently owned African-American bookstore in the heart of the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, is that community center. Co-Owner, James Fugate recalled a time before they opened an official store, “I had 20 cases of books in my apartment, Tom [Hamilton, co-owner] had 20 in his garage. People rang our doorbells at 9 and 10 in the morning saying, ‘Do you have this book? I gotta have it!” (Aubry). The community desired a place which sold underrepresented books, so Eso Won opened to pollinate the neighborhood with black literature.
However, the heart of the community is being threatened. If you look at the recent news for Los Angeles, you’ll see multiple stories on the construction of a new Metro system which will link LAX airport with multiple new stops across Los Angeles, anticipated to be completed by 2019. The Metro Board of Directors also voted 10 to 1 to approve funding for an underground Leimert Park Station on the forthcoming Crenshaw Line light rail.
The new Ninety-Sixth Street station will be situated in a better location for connections including to Leimert Park, and it will be an enclosed station with the following features: flight information boards, a place for airline check-ins, bathrooms, Wi Fi service, cell phone charging areas, a drop off area for cars and taxis, multiple ATMS, and many more improvements.
In Leimert Park, many community members saw this as a strategic move because the forthcoming Crenshaw-to-LAX line will allow for greater inter-city connection. Situated in southern Los Angeles, California, Leimert Park is known for its African-American culture. As of a 2008 census, Leimert Park had 12,311 residents in a 1.19 square mile area. The majority of these residents are black, as seen in the pie chart below, and many of the black residents originated from Africa, which allows the community to focus on African and African-American culture (Aubry).
Additionally, many of the local business have echoed this cultural diversity for years. Specifically, Degnan Boulevard is home to primarily African-American stores such as Africa by the Yard. This specialty store imports African fabrics and goods, recreating a sense of African culture in Los Angeles. Likewise, there is a shop called Sika, named after shop owner Sika Dwimfo, which sells custom jewelry, African art, and gifts. Towards the end of the street is The World Stage Performance Gallery which specializes in African and black theater. If residents get hungry, they can make their way to Phillips Bar-B-Que or Delicious Southern Cuisine, catering to an African-American plate. All of these stores create a unique community united by their intra-diverse African-American culture.
With the news of renovation many business owners were excited for what this could mean for the community. Over the past five years, several businesses have closed their doors. In particular Zambezi Bazaar did so as a result of the construction, even though they had supported the improved public transportation (Aubry). Like many of the businesses in the area, they sold imported African goods such as jewelry, art, and clothing. But the inaccessibility to Degnan Boulevard posed a problem for shop owners. When interviewed in 2014, James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won, was excited for this change on his store’s street. He saw this as an opportunity for businesses to fill the vacant storefronts on Degnan Boulevard, “This is the best news I’ve heard in years. It’s just what this community needs. You can’t have four functional storefronts out of 24, you need five or six serious shops employing 200 to 300 people” (Kaplan). As an active consumer in the community, Fugate recognizes Degnan Boulevard’s economic struggles and appreciates the potential the light rail could provide to Leimert Park. Some people say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe it takes a community to raise a bookstore.
Over the past few months, construction has begun, and unanticipated issues are rising. Even though the construction will increase foot-traffic and accessibility for L.A. residents and tourists, some of the businesses in the area are struggling to stay open during this transition. Daily life in the community is being disrupted as the rail lines are being built. For example, although many stores are remaining open, but customers no longer have access to parking or sidewalks. While completion of the new Metro lines is anticipated for 2019, the integrity of the Leimert Park community is at stake. If the businesses continue to suffer, Degnan Boulevard stores may not be able to endure the next four years. Without that community, Eso Won would struggle keep its doors open.
As a bookstore, Eso Won cultivates literature and serves as a community center. It provides the space and the means for the black community to not only learn about the diaspora but also their heritage as well. Similar to many ethnic bookstores, Eso Won has faced economic hardships while directing people to relatable stories of their fellow community members. For example, The National Memorial African Bookstore opened in the racial and political turmoil of the mid-1960s Harlem, New York and closed just a few years later, leaving a gaping hole for the African-American culture and community of the city. Similar to the situation in Leimert Park, The National Memorial African Bookstore shut their doors, after an “urban renewal project” that was created to “allegedly infuse cash and create jobs in the economically depressed neighborhood” (Emblidge 274). This dilemma echoes Fugate’s ideals on how the new Metro Line could stimulate the local economy and Eso Won’s community.
From the beginning of their partnership, owners James Fugate and Thomas Hamilton desired a gathering space for the black community. In the late 1980s Fugate managed the Compton College Bookstore in California, which is known for its wide selection of African-American and black authors. But Fugate wanted to take his managerial experience and aspiration of supplying books to those who “need to have them” one step further. He collaborated with like-minded friend, Hamilton and soon they took to the streets and peddled books wherever they could. They sold books by black authors at concerts, community events, and festivals. Feeling as though the black community had been perpetually left out of the conversation, they invited them to join in the narrative. As the demand grew, Fugate and Hamilton recognized the need for a place to bring the community and literature together.
As the co-founders established their plans for a bookstore, they extensively researched a name to represent their ideology of literature. They found the African term “eso won” which means “water over rocks,” and they interpreted it as “a living proverb [which] provides fluid, safe, stirring opportunities that flow to a reservoir of knowledge for all people to experience.” Since African-Americans are often pushed back by whitewashing in society, they strived to construct a space of serenity and discovery. In 1990 Eso Won Books became the opportunity that discovery of knowledge as Fugate and Hamilton created a bookstore with a canon of literature for the community.
Below is a timeline showing key events surrounding Eso Won Books’ history, as well as historical events for the black community and Los Angeles. People flocked to their bookstore because of its definition of literature. Their literature educated the community to the stories of other African-Americans, stories that are not always found in larger chain stores. To further connect with the community, Eso Won invited guest speakers and authors to share their work. Over the years, Eso Won has featured book signings by famous black writers including Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker.
One of the notable success stories that Eso Won experienced was Barack Obama’s rise to national attention between the publications of his two memoirs. Although the turnout was not very large at the first signing in 1995, Obama requested a stop at Eso Won Books on his next tour in 2006 after the releasing of his second book The Audacity of Hope. On that day alone Eso Won sold close to one thousand books (Kellogg). Eso Won takes pride in the symbol that Barack Obama stands for in the African-American community.
As seen with President Obama’s political advance, Eso Won showcases guest speakers and their transition to leadership and achievement. These individuals come from different arenas of success, epitomizing the store’s definition of literature. They have had award-winning poets and future presidents, but they have also had figures such as Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, and Muhammad Ali. From the fashion runway to the boxing ring, Eso Won expands the idea of literature to include inspirational stories which are relatable to members of the community.
Although the store has moved numerous times in its 25 years of existence, it has done so to continue to serve as a community center. When Eso Won relocated in 2006 to Degnan Boulevard, they were welcomed by Leimert Park with open arms. Similar to other independent businesses across the nation, Eso Won suffered financially during the 2008 recession. In response to economic struggles, they moved down the street in 2012 to their current location, consolidating from 3,200 square feet to 1,500 square feet (Werris). Despite their hope for economic stimulation from the new Metro Line, they are once again struggling to combat unexpected repercussions.
In the new location there is an open-concept layout, providing space to move, to walk, to sit, and to listen. If you look at photos of the bookstore, you will see a large area in the middle, which can hold multiple rows of chairs, seating at least twenty-five people. Although the store itself is not very wide, the open-concept invites you within. It looks like it could be a small classroom, with the guest speaker acting as the teacher filling the minds of the audience, engaging them with personal accounts and stories.
The bookstore is small and rectangular, like a shoe box. Shoe boxes are easy to stack or slide under something, like a child’s bed. They can become safes, protecting our little treasures, our collections.
Not only does Eso Won share culture with the use of the written word, but also visual arts, as shown through the windows. The windows wall the entrance and prevent the room from becoming crowded, ventilating the narrow store and connecting it to the community outside. The top of the windows displays the faces of three strong black leaders in red and green over the clear bottom half, showing the guiding influence and the widening possibilities. The colors weave into the store from the windows to the tapestries which hang above the register. The quilted images allows for African-American iconography, inviting guests to imagine themselves full of strength and potential. As seen in the ThingLink, the tapestries, a metal statue, and other Africana things decorate and reflect the African culture, creating a unique space. “[T]hings” is a common word, but as theorist Bill Brown says, “[t]he word designates the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday” (Brown 4); books have the power to enlighten and bewilder readers as they find their strength and potential. This is particularly true in American black culture, intra-diverse as different nationalities and peoples come together form a united culture. Fugate and Hamilton strive to represent this ambiguous yet united culture through Eso Won’s collection of literature.
Personal stories are key to the store. Eso Won is more than a bookseller, it is a story sharing environment. Through Eso Won’s ideology “‘[t]here… [is] more to a bookstore than bestsellers,’ highlighted independents’ pride in their diverse title selections and wide range of services” (Miller 169). The literature of Eso Won is not determined by books that will maximize profit, but rather books that will support the community, as African-Americans relate to the stories and immerse themselves in the culture and the space. Fugate and Hamilton establish “a relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value—that is, their usefulness—but studies and loves them as a scene, the stage, of their fate”(Benjamin 61). They see their store as a service to the community and as a place for the people.
Looking at images of the books, it can be difficult to determine an order, but Eso Won has not made itself to be an incredibly strict and organized, as there are no large signs directing you to each genre, but rather authors, ideas, and genres blend together in the common ground of African-American culture. Eso Won does sell bestsellers and the works of celebrities such as Tyra Banks and Barack Obama as well as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. You can find multiple perspectives and ideas just as you can find Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. being depicted in their children’s literature.
Many of the books sold at Eso Won discuss active citizens just as consumers at Eso Won are active citizens of the community, some are physically inhabitants of Leimert Park, but most are a part of the culture that Eso Won stands for. The store is a part of an “Eat, Shop, Play Crenshaw” Movement, allowing the customers to support the local area and businesses. “[I]ndividuals incorporate some understanding of a social benefit into their consumption habits” (Miller 200). Leimert Park supports the citizen consumer and hopes people will support them as they continue to have a good relationship with the community in this space for sharing and communication. This store has had an impact on its community because of the relationship individuals have with the space and the books.Eso Won plays a role in the larger picture of the character of Leimert Park, functioning as a place to connect and to educate.
Although Eso Won’s history has shown the store’s resilience, braving financial downfalls and location changes, this bookstore’s future is in jeopardy, as it may not be able to withstand the construction until its projected completion in 2019. It is hard to say what will happen next. If the majority of stores close on Degnan Boulevard, Leimert Park will lose an essential part of the community as those stores, and in particular Eso Won, have served as the bond between the neighborhood and the African-American culture.
Eso Won’s ideology of literature inspired and educated every guest who entered their open doors. Another possibility was presented in a recent article by Catherine Wagley from the LA Weekly. She reported that a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) is rumored to be considering the purchase of Degnan Boulevard storefronts.
At the same time Eso Won may survive the economic transition, continuing to serve Leimert Park. If Eso Won Books were to close, the community would sacrifice the literature brought to life by renowned guests, fusing together individuals with icons of inspiring success. Without Eso Won Leimert Park would lose a symbol of African-American heritage and future potential.