A Collection of Culture: Eso Won Books

Eso Won Books has a relatively small retail space in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles. The store is composed of one open room with bookshelves lining the walls and smaller, freestanding cases in the center of the room. There are tables of magazines, children’s books, coffee table books, and other objects on the surrounding walls near the cash register. Eso Won Books relies on open spaces due to its participation in hosting book signings and lectures, which happen at a frequent rate. In these cases, the freestanding bookshelves are pushed aside to make room for the rows of plastic seats or for the lines of people awaiting a book signing.

There are many bookcases lining the wall, as well. These shelves hold books by genre. Many of the books face out, their spines are not showing, but their covers are. This gives the appearance that all of these books are important, rather than just the few that are, more often than not, facing out simply for the advertising like in many other bookstores. The books at Eso Won have their own personalities, their own values, and this is apparent with the type of shelving the owners, Tom Hamilton and James Fugate, have chosen.

The bookshelves are lined with small, yellow tape plaques that label the sections, drawing the customers in close to discover the genre of the books. This forces customers to peruse the sections of books, rather than go straight to what they are looking for. Eso Won does not employ the use of loud, flashy signs because they want their customers to stumble across books along the way. This way, a shopper could unexpectedly find an interesting title while looking for whichever book he or she came in for.

Not only does Eso Won stock shelves and shelves of books, it also sells other things. “Things,” as Bill Brown denotes, has a special connotation. He says, “The word designates the concrete yet ambiguous within the everyday” (Brown 4). In the case of Eso Won Books, these “concrete yet ambiguous” things are the objects separate from books, but still involved in the theme of Africana. There is a section of postcards and greeting cards with famous faces on them like Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. There are DVDs, CDs, figurines, and other items, as well. These things are all related to the collection that Eso Won Books offers its customers.

The store specializes in African-American and Black culture, so the objects sold reflect that. It is this collection of items that truly designates Eso Won as a sort of peddler of a certain kind of cultural collection of literature. Customers go into Eso Won with the intention of buying or perusing books written by or about Black people. They browse the dully-labeled sections in search for another book for their collection. Walter Benjamin recounts this phenomenon in his piece, “Unpacking My Library.” He posits, “One only has to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing them through them into their distant past as though inspired” (Benjamin 61). At Eso Won, collectors are able to lift books from their shelves and feel that inspiration flow through them.

Another interesting aspect of Eso Won Books is the inability for someone (say, a student blogger whose project it is to describe the interior of the store) to discover the inside layout of the store. It is next to impossible to get a clear picture of what Eso Won Books looks like inside, which may be in part due to the many address changes, a certain sense of privacy, or maybe it is just the store’s way of bringing customers inside. Either way, it is clear that Eso Won is a place that beckons to be visited in person. The map below offers an outsider’s perspective of the layout of the store through research of photos and videos found online. With the sort of staccato images found, I pieced together a floor plan of the various sections where I posited they would be. This is just a hypothesis of the interior layout of the store.

In this hypothetical layout, it is apparent that the open layout works well with sensing the customer’s needs. From the register, clerks can guide shoppers to where they need to be. The bookcase-lined wall does not inhibit sight, so a question can be answered simply and efficiently throughout the small store.

Eso Won Books has a business model that stresses a kind of human interaction, but is also aware of the ever-changing market. Their website boasts, “It gives us immense pleasure to announce that we have added e-books to our online business model along with our regular selection of titles. Enjoy your online shopping experience and make it a point to come by the bookshop when you’re in town.” So, the store is acknowledging their descent into new technology while simultaneously reminding customers into come to the store as well.

In this ephemeral, technological society, bookstores are still a staple in the community, even though online shopping and ebooks are becoming more popular. There is still a very distinct sense of community in a bookstore, especially a specialty shop like Eso Won Books. This is a place that collectors can revel – a place that is owned by, and for the Black community of readers and collectors.







Benjamin, Walter, and Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

Brown, Bill. Thing Theory. Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.


Thing Link: thinglink.com