Vanishing Bookstores and Black Spaces in Los Angeles

I imagined myself buying several books at Eso Won Bookstore in Leimert Park during their final sale. Rumor was the Black-owned bookstore would be closing after thirty-six years in business. A landmark for Black Los Angeles, it was awarded 2021 Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Despite its compact size of 1800 square feet, it had also been recognized as one of the largest Black-owned bookstores in the U.S. It was where I’d spied, surrounded by other books, the cover of the 869-page, Library of America edition of James Baldwin’s Baldwin Collected Essays and knew then that I had to buy it. My Baldwin purchase completed a couple of years ago, now the store’s founders, James Fulgate and Tom Hamilton, had reached retirement age. They started Eso Won initially inside a home and later as a book-on-wheels concept in the late 1980’s. Eventually the store would find a home at various storefronts in South Los Angeles before the owners settled on Leimert Park in 2006. I’d heard they would be closing sometime at the end of the year. So, I went to the bookstore at the beginning of November 2022 planning to make final discount purchases and say my last goodbyes.

In the years following the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Eso Won, along with the California African American Museum, was the location to hear Black writers and activists engaged with political and social life talk books and politics. It was at Eso Won that I heard Kali Akuno, co-founder of Cooperation Jackson, a Mississippi cooperative, speak about his book, Jackson Rising. That was an evening in 2017 when I headed to the bookstore after work. As they normally did on evenings of book talks, Fulgate and Hamilton converted the small walking space inside the bookstore into an auditorium by bringing folding chairs from the backroom and arranging them on the salesfloor. Using a small desk as his podium, Akuno faced the audience as we sat on the metal chairs anxious to hear his reasons for leaving California and starting a cooperative in the South.

On other occasions, we might be ten people in the audience, and sometimes we were twenty with standing room only. The common thread connecting us was curiosity and a craving for answers from Black people who had analyzed our common oppression. Amongst the speakers and the audience, some were comfortable with reform while others sought revolt. Sitting in the small space on Eso Won’s sales floor, I also heard Ibrahim X. Kendi speak on How to Be an Anti-Racist, Kelly Lytle Hernandez on City of Inmates, and Daina Ramey Berry on The Price for their Pound of Flesh. As the nation confronted its violent legacy of racism and witnessed protests against police brutality, the Eso Won website and calendar became a lifeline connecting me to the next scheduled appearance of a writer, activist, or scholar.

Because I had heard the store would be closing at the end of 2022, I arrived at the beginning of November. Turning on to Degnan Avenue, I noticed a store with brown paper covering its windows. There was no sign above the storefront. My first thought: Is that where it was? I stopped my car momentarily. The commercial space that had sheltered the grandest dreams and creations of so many Black writers seemed now so tiny. I drove towards the park at the end of the block, turned around and drove back to the storefront. Yes, that is where Eso Won was. And it was now gone. I was too late. Silently, I cursed myself, and I cursed the city.

After parking, I got out and walked towards the former bookstore. Although I couldn’t enter, I figured I could at least allow my body the fiction that I was going to. A letter-sized paper taped on the closed glass door assured me that, yes, the store, with brown paper covering the windows was the former Eso Won. Beyond the storefront, I was drawn in by the Saturday morning environment of Leimert Park. It was a cross between movie set and maroon village. With cars parked at an angle on both sides, the middle of the street, which functions as a plaza, served as a marketplace for merchants selling t-shirts, jackets, and African clothing made of bold and colorful Ankara prints. On the northern end of the block, a man opened his black iron cast barbecue pit. He waved his arms at the billows of smoke causing apparitions of Tubman and Garvey to rise. At least two different sets of speakers on opposite sides of the street blared different reggae songs. Near the vacant Eso Won building, a Black homeless man huddled near a closed door while a young woman with a large Afro sat near the curb in a high metal chair and typed on her laptop that she’d placed on the metal table. Two Black men in expensive sports attire brisked past. Continuing down the block, I noticed at least two other stores had closed. I believe one had been a store that sold clothes and wooden sculptures from Africa. In front of an empty storefront, three or four musicians had started a session of African drumming. The drummers pounded resonant and rhythmic beats into the animal skin as a small group of mostly men stood by chatting and listening. At the southern corner of the block, men hurried in and out of a barbershop.

While it’s not the only Black bookstore in Los Angeles, the closing of Eso Won is a double loss. It is symbolic of the decline in the Black population of Los Angeles that has fallen from a high of thirteen percent in the 1990’s to its current eight percent. For various reasons, many Black LA residents are moving to the nearby suburbs or as far as the neighboring counties of San Bernadino and Riverside, while others have moved out of state. The outward migration means Black spaces like Eso Won disappear.

Eso Won is also symbolic of the disappearance of independent bookstores in the Los Angeles area. During my high school years, my teacher sent ten or twelve of us students who were in her AP Spanish Lit class to the long gone Librairie de France/Librería Hispánica on Olive Street, near Seventh, in Downtown Los Angeles. There used to be separate Spanish and French bookstores on Book Sellers’ Row on Westwood Boulevard.  Book Sellers’ Row started at Pico and ran all the way up to UCLA. Other bookstores on Westwood included a medical bookstore, Sisterhood feminist bookstore, and the pride of the region, Westwood Bookstore itself. Near West Hollywood there was the Bodhi Tree which specialized in religion, philosophy, and spirituality. And in Santa Monica, on the now gentrified Third Street Promenade, the leftist bookstore, Midnight Special held court for twenty-three years and hosted writers, thinkers, and activists such as Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Elaine Brown, and Edward Said. I didn’t have the fortune of seeing those luminaries in Santa Monica, but I was in the audience to hear the reading by Chicano poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca. After his reading, he signed my copy of Martín & Meditations on the South Valley.

While the moneyed classes might argue that the growth of a conglomerate like Amazon — which has precipitated the closure of independent bookstores — has led to lower prices and the convenience of warehouse-to-door shipping, for the Black population, the loss of a space like Eso Won offers no rainbow on the horizon. As members of a community that has languished for centuries without reparations, the owners of small Black businesses almost never have the economic foundation and investment to grow into large capitalist enterprises. And while the forces of capitalism allow privileged classes of White residents to build stronger and newer communities, those same forces tend to split up established Black neighborhoods. I’ve seen evidence of this along Crenshaw Boulevard, just two blocks away from Leimert Park, where numerous Black businesses have closed due to the economic hardships caused by gentrification as well as the pandemic and subway construction.

So, on a November day in Lemeirt Park, the notification taped on the closed glass door was proof Eso Won was gone. Like Central Avenue, Santa Barbara Avenue, Rodeo Road, the old Eastside. Now a memory amidst the rolling rhythms of music, the greetings of smiling street merchants, and cars driving away into the distance.

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