Just Come In and Browse: Eso Won Books’ Past
If you go to yelp.com and search for Eso Won Books, you’ll see that Eso Won bookstore is the first store to pop up, unless you forgot to change the location to Los Angeles.
Then maybe Swan’s Fine Books or Barnes and Nobles near San Francisco, may be your first choices. But once you look at the correct page, the many comments and current standing at four and a half stars seems promising, especially since the most recent activity was on December 12, 2014. While the 23 reviews go all the way back October 2007, they only echo the pleasure the customer has had doing business with Eso Won books for almost three decades. And what did Eso Won books have that customers were looking for, well that’s been the question for quite some time now.
Back in in the late seventies and early eighties, James Fugate debated between going into law and politics or going into the book business. After some deliberation, he followed his passion for books. Originally from Detroit, he moved around to various states for managerial positions in bookstores. Eventually, he found himself in Los Angeles where he managed the Compton College Bookstore. At the time, the Compton College Bookstore was known for its large selection of African-American history books. Though Fugate’s passion was already ignited, the fire sparked and his interest flamed, admitting “I could pretty much buy what I wanted to buy. [and] so I bought lots of African-American books” [Carter]. While Fugate could feast on the literature at Compton College’s bookstore, he noticed a deficit in the variety of books sold at chain stores. They shelved the same best-sellers from the best-known authors. But lack of depth and relatability struck him, firing for the creation of a community hub to educate the local people. Fugate believed “bookstores are still important – just to come in and [browse]” [Carter]. And by having a wide variety of books that were unavailable at other stores, he could fuel the community. Together in a community group, James Fugate, Thomas Hamilton and a former third party owner collaborated and opened the first location of Eso Won Books at Slauson and Crenshaw in 1988. This independently owned bookstore would breathe air into the written words which had lost it. Fugate explains his opinion regarding chain stores, “I don’t think [mainstream] bookstores have that kind of familiarity with Black subjects. They don’t have the interest it seems; they don’t know some of the things that [Black people] take for granted” [Carter].
Though the store was off the beaten path located in a strip mall, it was lined wall-to-wall with books and invited browsing for rarities and treasured titles. They held discussion groups and stimulated conversation about icons such as Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Muhammad and many others.
It came to the point where this community center extended past the bookstore’s walls and expanded to their homes. Fugate recalled, “I had 20 cases of books in my apartment, Tom 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]. Eso Won’s reputation gained momentum with the first public acknowledgement being a piece in the L.A. Times View section. At the time Shahrazad Ali’s book The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding a Blackwoman was released, but not many stores would give the book shelf-life. But Eso Won Books was noted as one of the only bookstores where this controversial book could be bought. But this independent store was limited to a small domain. So Fugate and Hamilton debated whether or not to move, and in August of 1996 they signed a lease for a space at the Ladera Center in Ladera Heights, which would provide an upper level income and racially mixed neighborhood.
Though no one could have predicted what the next few weeks brewed. A partnership, which included former NBA Earvin “Magic” Johnson, bought the Ladera Center in an effort to develop retail centers in urban and minority communities in California. Though Johnson says in an interview, he wanted to “show other African Americans that they could make it too,” he stunted the growth of two African Americans’ bookstore. Even though the former owners had approved the deal, the new owners did not give a lease to Hamilton and Fugate. Eso Won’s owners believe this could be because they were a small independently owned bookstore, and the new owners would rather find larger tenants. With intentions of already moving, Eso Won books makes its second physical move to La Brea, Inglewood in Los Angeles.
As Eso Won continued to build its community of followers and its reputation, Fugate and Hamilton premiered signings and special guest readings for anyone in the community.Professor of Yaborough, who teaches English and Afro-American Studies, said,
“Eso Won is willing to bring in anyone who is doing something in black literature-which is what the Aquarian used to do…Culture as a commercial outlet may be the only way to really reach everyone. It’s great to come to an event and see young people, old people, people who have never come to a talk or lecture. Eso Won is a place outside of academia, outside of college campuses, where all black people can come for education” [Aubry]. Which is completely true, when you look at the list of authors who have visited the store. Between household names like Bill Clinton to literary activist Toni Morrison, Eso Won Books has consistently used their store as an educational platform for the community. Click here to watch a video of a reading hosted at Eso Won Books.
And on the rare occasion, owners Fugate and Hamilton chose to protect their community sanctuary at the cost of a book signing and burned bridges. In May 2002 Maya Angelou published A Song Flung Up to Heaven, and journalist, Wanda Coleman critiques the book, describing it as “a sloppily written fake, bloated to 214 pages by large type and widely spaced chapter headings, more than half its 33 chapters averaging two to four pages” [Drew]. To save their store’s integrity, Fugate diminished the reviews authenticity and interpreted it as a personal attack on Maya Angelou rather than thoughtful criticism. So Fugate and Hamilton banned Wanda Coleman from their store in an effort to maintain its harmony. Fugate responds, “My partner and I didn’t want that type of negative energy in our store because it’s non-productive. Similar to how people don’t want cynicism in their home, we don’t want negativity in our home” [Drew].
Over the next four years, Fugate and Hamilton discuss moving their home, and in 2006 they move to their current store at Degnan Boulevard. Though, once again, Fugate and Hamilton have unfortunate luck with moving. Shortly after their move, the country moved into a recession where independently owned stores across the country faced tight wallets. The profits felt the blow, but decreasing due not only the recession.
Since Eso Won moved to a smaller location, the new venue did not allow for the same volume of selection, and likewise, many of the regular customers did not follow the store to the new location. The book sales continued to decline, “Competing with the Internet and big-chain, mega-store discounts, the constant struggle to pay bills has left the pair with no choice but to consider closing the doors to its Leimert Park location unless the community gives support” [Sabathia].
After providing for the community for two decades, the community gave back to Eso Won Books. Patrons came from across the county in search of not only books, but to save the community. Reporter Sandy Banks claimed when she and other customers went into Eso Won Books, it was not to just “find books they might enjoy, but to feel, for a little while not in the minority.” Without this Eso Won as a safe space for race, not only Fugate and Hamilton would lose, but the community would lose an integral piece of its heritage.
Over the next several months, the owners strategized for ways to increase profits. Eventually, they settled by selling older books they had been stocking for years and allowing recent editions such as The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings or a Ralph Ellison biography to occupy the shelves. By tuning into specific demands of the community, they hoped to be able to continue doing what they had been doing almost three decades.And now today, it looks as though Eso Won has come out of some of its roughest times, and still it provides a platform for education in the community. With recent signings and guest speakers, I think now it just as good a time as any to come in and browse.
*Note to reader: Any links for books were first tried at Eso Won Books online store, but if unavailable at Eso Won Books’ online store, it was then linked to Amazon.com
Barack Obama and Toni Morrison
Dr. Mable John
“Peace in the Hood”
Maps embedded from Google