In 1989, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released and caused an uproar in the racial politics of the United States. The next year, Eso Won Books opened its doors in Leimert Park, California. This small, independent bookstore, owned by two black men, serves its community by offering literature written for and by African-American and black people. Twenty years later, the Eso Won bookstore hosted a book signing by Spike Lee himself, a feat that seemed impossible at the start.
Eso Won had humble beginnings as a bookstore. James Fulgate and Thomas Hamilton founded the store in 1990. The two met in the late 1980s when Fulgate was managing a college bookstore in Compton, California (George). After discovering a like-minded hobby, reading black literature,
Hamilton and Fulgate became friends and later, business partners. They took on selling books by African-American and black authors wherever they could: at festivals, concerts, and other events hosted by the community (George). Fulgate and Hamilton did extensive planning and research before starting Eso Won Books. They chose the name because of its peaceful connotation. The bookstore’s website defines Eso Won as, “(African for “water over rocks”) is a living proverb as it provides fluid, safe, stirring opportunities that flow to a reservoir of knowledge for all people to experience.” Fulgate and Hamilton planned to create an inclusive atmosphere for African-Americans who are often left out of the narrative.
Here is a timeline of events surrounding Eso Won Books’ history and some societal events that shaped it.
What’s important to note is that Fulgate and Hamilton are passionate about the books they sell. The reason they became business partners was because of their shared interests in literature and ideas about black and American societal culture. Their knowledge and expertise make them perfect booksellers who customers can question and ask for suggestions. Fulgate and Hamilton are similar to Roger Mifflin in Christopher Morley’s 1914 novel, Parnassus on Wheels, in which Mifflin travels in a wagon and sells books from door-to-door. Mifflin uses his knowledge (and a certain amount of judgment) to make suggestions to his customers. He asks a few introductory questions, observes the customer’s home, dress, and talk, and sells them the perfect book. Mifflin’s literary knowledge is key to his profession, much like it is for the owners of Eso Won Books.
Despite these humble beginnings, Eso Won has steadily become a staple in the South Los Angeles community. Not only does the bookstore acquire foot traffic from the neighborhood, but tourism to Leimert Park has flourished. California travellers make the stop to this neighborhood specifically to immerse themselves in African-American culture. They stop at Africa By the Yard, Sika, Gallery Plus, Zambezi Bazaar, and Eso Won Books to get a sense of the community. Eso Won has come a long way from pushing books at festivals, and now the store proudly boasts about the writers who have signed books and spoken there. Authors like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali have all had signings at Eso Won. But the most notable success story (for both parties) is when a young Barack Obama came to sign his memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance in 1995. The turnout was not very large, but Eso Won Books made such a good impression on him that when he released his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama made sure he stopped there on his book tour. Eso Won sold close to one thousand books that day (Kellogg).
The store has moved locations a few times in its history, which calls for the store to have to almost reinvent itself every few years, creating a ever-changing atmosphere. A big move for Eso Won was from the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson to 4331 Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park in 2006 (George). Another move was more recently, in early March 2012, just a few yards away from the previous location. This move was a drastic change to the size of the store, collapsing from 3,200 square feet to 1,500 square feet (Werris). However, Fulgate and Hamilton did not seem to have many problems with this move, as they were not using the extra space anyway. These moves have created an atmosphere of reinvention. Even though the location changes were not far from one another, they still required Eso Won to relocate and resize their spaces.
Eso Won Books specializes in black culture, much like the films of Spike Lee. Do the Right Thing takes place in a Brooklyn neighborhood and follows a young black man (played by Spike Lee himself) as he works as a pizza delivery person on the hottest day of the summer. It deals with social and racial issues surrounding an Italian-American pizza shop in a predominately black neighborhood. A loud boombox and a misunderstanding at the climax of Do the Right Thing leads to a the death of a young black man at the hands of a police officer and the community riots back in a fiery protest. The film’s conclusion is one that is still incredibly and unfortunately relevant today.
Eso Won Books fits into this Do the Right Thing narrative in a few ways. Spike Lee is one of the first filmmakers to make inclusionary movies for black people. Hollywood films are too often whitewashed or filled with racist black stereotypes. Lee’s vision is for racial equality, but also for a chance for African-Americans to have their own stories, untouched by white culture. It’s even shown in Do the Right Thing when Giancarlo Esposito’s character complains to the Italian-American pizza shop owner that his “Wall of Fame” on the wall of the restaurant doesn’t feature any black people, even though the restaurant is situated ina predominately black neighborhood. Eso Won Books may not have the political prowess of a film like Do the Right Thing, but it’s a niche for black culture. It’s a kind of “Wall of Fame.” It allows for African-Americans and other black folks to have a place that is made simply for them. The books that Eso Won carries are written by black authors and are often stories about black characters. It’s a place that plays bebop and jazz music on the speakers all day. It’s a place specifically for a minority group of people in the United States. In an article entitled, “Meeting of the Minds: Convening Consciousness and Culture and Eso Won Books,” co-owner Tom Hamilton says, “people need a place to come, one that feels like their own.” And this is why Eso Won is so important. It feels like home.
James Fulgate and Thomas Hamilton http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/assets_c/2014/03/Eso-Won-Primary-thumb-630×496-70602.jpg
Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/mt/assets/culture_test/spike%20lee%20do%20the%20right%20thing%20bailey%20615.jpg
“Meeting of the Minds: Convening Consciousness and Culture and Eso Won Books” http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/leimert-park/meeting-of-the-minds-convening-consciousness-and-culture-at-eso-won-books.html
“Bookstore of the Week: Eso Won Books” http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2011/01/bookstore-of-the-week-eso-won-books.html
“Eso Won Books to Move Following Sale of Building” http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/50719-eso-won-books-to-move-following-sale-of-building.html
Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels. New York: Avon Books, 1983.