Pouring Poems into the Open Arms: Eso Won Books
“Take long stares at your hand until true love returns to your touch Then touch
Stand right in a garment of light
I want to pour poems into the open arms of your drums
I want to get in between your piano keys and unleash the healing secrets”
–Kamau Da’ood, “Leimert Park”
Nestled in between the 90008 McDonald’s and Pizza Hut is Eso Won Books, an “independent black (people) owned bookstore,” as the website says. When first reading this identifying statement, I wondered how the owners would interweave their ethnicities and cultural identities together into the commerce of bookselling. But as the area’s demographics support, the cultural need is not for the next best-selling book, but rather it is for a stimulation of the African heritage.
This Los Angeles bookstore is located in the neighborhood of Leimert Park. It’s nicknamed the “Harlem of the West Coast” since its estimated population is 12,311 is low in ethnic diversity. Also according to the Los Angeles Times, 79.6% of the population is black, which is a high for the county.
Now another defining factor of Leimert Park’s population is its education demographic. Even though education is spread out between graduate degrees and high school drop outs, 18.2% of residents did not attend high school and 20.3% have only completed some of a high school education. In the same way, 28.8% of residents have some college education, but only 14.9% have a bachelor’s degree, leaving 10% with graduate degrees.
This neighborhood has a large percentage of family households, 62.7%, meaning there is more than one person living within a house, including around 35% of households having at least one child. The median household income is $45,865, and around 63% of workers are classified as white collar employees.
If you compare Leimert Park to Florence-Graham, another southern L.A. neighborhood, 84.9% of households are family households with 66.2% of those households having at least one child. Even further, 42.3% of residents have no high school education and 25.7% have some. And from there, the median income is $32,712. So in comparison, Leimert Park demographics seem higher than some of the neighboring areas.
So what exactly is going on in Leimert Park then. Well, Leimert Park seems to be a cradle for African culture. It is the intersection of American life and African heritage, molding African American culture. Not only is there a sense of identity but there is a community which prides itself upon its culture. Just ask the president of the Leimer Park Village Merchants Association, Jackie Ryan, who has said, “We hope to preserve African American culture.” Just look at the stores on one block of Degnan Boulevard, where Eso Won Books is.
Next door to Eso Won is Africa By the Yard, a store that sells imported African prints and fabrics, unavailable at the local Walmart a few blocks over. On the corner of Degnan and 43rd is Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine which serves brown stew tilapia and ginger beer and many other dishes. Across the street is Sika, a seller of handcrafted jewelry and African imports such as clothing. And just down a little is the World Stage Performance Gallery which is known as the cultural hub. Many events such as the Kwanza Music Festival and classes such as drum workshop, jazz vocal lessons, and the Anansi writers’ workshop. Famous authors and poets such as Kamau Daáood, Akilah Oliver, Nafis Nabawi and Anthony Lyons have not only made appearances but have also supported the workshop and the World Stage.
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By just looking at the places surrounding Eso Won, it’s no surprise that the owners identify their bookstore with race. This identity is woven into the name. The word “Eso Won” is African for “water over the rocks.” And it creates a metaphor that knowledge will flow out of the bookstore’s reservoir, or at least its own perceived identity as a knowledge fountain. These bookstore owners considered, in Laura Miller’s words, “books, like other forms of art, serve both the individual and the nation. Books enrich the spirit and refine sensibilities; they crystallize the nation’s hopes and embody the finest sentiments of our national life.” In Eso Won books are there to define the sentiments of a cultural identity with African and African American culture. Just take a glance at its electronic bookshelves which mirror the culture of the area. Though the themes span from “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” to “In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement”—titles you would not normally find at your local Barnes and Nobles. Instead their stock reinforces the identity through African histories and leaders alongside with African American histories and leaders. Likewise, the categories of books feed to the families in the area such as “What are Young People Reading? (ages 9-14).”
Though many people don’t associate Los Angeles as a cultural hub for African and African American culture, Leimert Park was founded to counteract the deficit, and the area’s ethnic identity has rippled into the commerce of the area and has poured out from the borders of Leimert Park into open arms.
Census 2000, SCAG, Los Angeles Department of City Planning <http://maps.latimes.com/neighborhoods/neighborhood/leimert-park/>
Eso Won Bookstore <http://www.esowonbookstore.com/>
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Mike, Angeleno, http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/columns/la-letters/8-literary-lions-of-leimert-park.html
Onboard Informatics, <http://www.sfrealtors.com/US/Neighborhood/CA/Los-Angeles-Demographics.html>
Eso Won Books,< https://d3lawkbdj6aabd.cloudfront.net/singleplatform/image/upload/cf010a2fc9912f53eab962e0380bc9de07735852.jpg>
Ethnicity in Leitmert Park, Los Angeles Times <http://maps.latimes.com/neighborhoods/neighborhood/leimert-park/>
Google Maps: Leitmert Park, Los Angeles; Degnan Boulevard-Eso Won Books; 4327 Degnan Boulevard
Kamau Da’ood, “Leimert Park”, <http://artists.refuseandresist.org/news7/news324.html>