Sigh…I’ve been trying to write this since October. That’s when I read in the LA Times, that Eso Won Books, a major Black bookstore in Los Angeles, is on its last legs like so many other local bookstores around the country. When I read the article, written by John Mitchell, I gasped and wondered what I could do. Immediately, I started to blog on it, but then something akin to guilt got in the way. See, I haven’t been to Eso Won in ages. I mean, “bookstore ages”. The last time I was there, my daughter was 3 mos. old.
Part of the reason I stopped going was sheer traffic. Anyone who lives in near West Hollywood can tell you what a pain the patootie it is to drive down Fairfax Ave. Why would I waste 30 min. of my life to go 3 miles when I can just shop online? Right? You know you do it too. We contribute to the closing of our local bookstores. I buy about half of my books online. Usually from Powell’s, sometimes from Alibris. I buy for covers, I buy special editions, but I’m also supporting pretty liberal businesses and that makes me happy. When I have a list of bookstores here in Los Angeles I must peruse to get used books. Used. Occasionally, if we have the cash, I’ll buy a trade paperback by a favorite author. I’ve got to be deeply invested in an author/series to buy brand new hardback. When I do get a hardback, I use my Barnes & Noble discount (did you know that if you have the store order a book for you, it’s cheaper than buying it online OR in a store?).
The challenge facing the Leimert Park shop is neither new nor distinctly black. Independent bookstores have been on the endangered species list for years.
Twenty years ago, the threat was from chains, like Crown, then mega-stores like Borders. Now the competition is online; one-third of all books sold in this country today are ordered through the convenient clicks of Amazon.com.
The other reason I stopped going is that I don’t read Black-focused books. I get these catalogs from Black publishers all the time and just toss them. Why? I’m not a single professional graduate of an HBCU, looking for love and career success. I’m not interested in erotica, no matter who the subject is. I’m definitely not interested in reading novels with a strong Christian message (that I can get just getting lectured to by my family). Otherwise, there is very little in the way of “Black literature” that speaks to me and my interests.
But you know what? All that’s just an excuse. Eso Won doesn’t just carry Black literature. Eso Won has an awesome selection of books that you’ll probably never see outside a college library or The Bodhi Tree. Just because Eso Won focuses on selling books by Black people, that doesn’t mean they only sell Black-focused books. And I know that.
Back in October, John Mitchell wrote:
Eso Won has grown famous by hosting book-signings by nationally recognized figures and entertainers seeking to pitch memoirs, but it hasn’t grown prosperous.
After 20 years of hawking books — some by popular authors; others, scholarly works, with rare and exotic titles — L.A.’s leading independent bookstore specializing in writings by African Americans is facing bankruptcy.
Eso Won, has always been the place to go to see Black authors. Whether it was for book signings or discussions, you knew that you were in the center of it all. I’ve met some interesting and wonderful people there. People who’ve given me suggestions on book I might have ignored. I’ve witnessed some of the best, most enlightened conversations in LA at that bookstore (the Starbucks on La Tijera Blvd. comes in at a very close second). What I’m saying is that Eso Won is a little more than a bookstore.
Sandy Banks wrote about her recent visit to the shop, and in that reminisced over her own special bookstore.
When I moved here from Ohio at 25, I spent months feeling lonely and lost. I found a family at Bread and Roses, a women’s bookstore in Sherman Oaks. The store became my favorite hangout, with cozy sofas, an endless supply of cookies and coffee, and shelves stocked with everything from pregnancy primers to dress-for-success manuals to politics-of-lesbianism manifestoes.
But it was less the books than the people that drew me in. When I couldn’t get my baby to sleep through the night or wondered how to ask my boss for a raise, I relied not only on advice I read, but lessons I learned from the women I met there.
When I was a teen/young adult, that’s what Eso Won was for me. It was one thing to sit with my aunts and hear them talking. It was yet another sit with the women at the mosques and hear them talking. Going into Eso Won, gave me another level of interaction, I never received from my elders. They weren’t shooing me out the room to “talk grown folk business”. They treated me as a peer. They understood my need for knowledge and lead me down a path. That’s something I have never received from any other bookstore.
Last night, I read an article at the LA Sentinel‘s website by Jasmyne Cannick. I clicked because of the subject matter. Then I recognized the byline but couldn’t quite place it, until I went to her site and realized that a few weeks back, I had found her blog via NaBloPoMo. Cannick’s piece for the Sentinel is, in a word, brilliant:
On Black Friday while the rest of America was camped outside of Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and their local mall, many in freezing temperatures, I had the good fortune to be first in line at my local Black owned bookstore Eso Won. Not only was I the first in line, I was the line. Sadly, Eso Won didn’t open up until 10 o’clock Friday morning. I guess one person in line on Black Friday didn’t warrant opening the store up at 4 a.m. Which is not to put a negative reflection on the bookstore, I’m sure had there been hundreds camped outside of the store waiting to buy books that the owners would have gladly opened up early. I must point out though that this is the same bookstore that the community rallied around a month ago when there was talk of the store possibly closing down. When I came back later that afternoon with a friend to do some shopping, the only difference between then and my 4 a.m. trip was that the store was open and the lights were on, but besides the owner and us, Eso Won was a ghost town.
If that’s not enough to get you down to Eso Won, only the closing of the article is better. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to click over to read the entire piece yourself. Cannick laid it out. There isn’t anything to add and she’s completely right.
But this also extends beyond Eso Won. Black bookstores are closing down everywhere. Hell, independent bookstores are closing down everywhere. That means that certain books are destined to never be accidentally discovered or read, unless as an assignment in school. As much as I like Powell’s and Alibris, books about or by Black people (historical or fiction) aren’t their focus. I see glaring holes in both stores offerings. Don’t even get me started on ghettoization of places like Borders or Barnes & Nobles.
You have options, but are they the ones you want?