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A beloved Black-run bookstore in Los Angeles is closing
James Fugate, the co-owner of Eso Won Books, in Los Angeles, on Aug 27, 2020. Eso Won Books has championed Black writers for more than three decades, but the store is closing by the end of the year, its co-founder says. Erik Carter/The New York Times.

by Livia Albeck-Ripka



LOS ANGELES, CA.- When James Fugate and Tom Hamilton started Eso Won Books in 1988, their books, almost all by Black authors, were stacked in dozens of crates; some in Fugate’s apartment, the rest in Hamilton’s garage.

Nearly every weekend, at least one of them would haul their books to a community event in Los Angeles. Whatever money they made selling books, they spent on books. Soon, customers were coming to their homes, asking for specific titles.

In 1989, Hamilton and Fugate opened the brick-and-mortar store Eso Won Books in the bedroom of an old house on Slauson Avenue in South Los Angeles. At the time, it was one of only a few Black-run bookstores in the city.

In the more than three decades since, the store has hosted luminaries including Muhammad Ali, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. It has become a home for Black authors, a revered fixture of Los Angeles and a place that residents have turned to for guidance in moments of political upheaval.

But now, Eso Won Books is closing.

“I’m just tired,” Fugate said Monday while sitting in his office behind the store, which is now based in Leimert Park, a largely Black neighborhood in South Los Angeles.

On the desk beside him was a stack of copies of “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition” by Cedric J. Robinson. In a box beneath the desk were several copies of Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Raise an Antiracist.”

Fugate, who grew up in Detroit and is now 67, said his love of books was instilled in him from a young age. His mother would read Dr. Seuss to him and his brother. Every week, he would go to the local library. But after a lifetime in the book business, Fugate said, the time has finally come to retire.

Before opening Eso Won, Fugate spent several years running college bookstores. He would often sell the stores’ books at weekend community events. But eventually, he got frustrated; he wanted to create something that would put money back into the community and champion Black writers.

“I felt uncomfortable,” Fugate said. “This should be a Black store.”




By the early 1990s, Eso Won had outgrown its premises on Slauson Avenue. Fugate and Hamilton moved the store to Inglewood. There, they hosted Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party and Barack Obama, a little-known writer at the time who was on his book tour for “Dreams From My Father.”

“One of the only places that took me was Eso Won Books, back when nobody knew who I was and couldn’t pronounce my name,” the former president said in an interview last year with Fugate and Hamilton.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has described Eso Won as watering the roots of the Black literary canon.

“In much the same way we need diversity among authors and editors, we need diversity among the ranks of booksellers,” Coates said in 2016. “They are the ultimate arbiters of our literary tradition.”

Presciently, he added: “In these coming dark times, we can scarcely afford to be without them.”

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, that need was palpable. Eso Won was inundated with customers.

“That was the most unbelievable thing ever,” Fugate said. “In one day, we had over 1,000 orders. “People from all over the country were ordering books.”

But business has since slowed down, and Fugate said he and Hamilton plan to close the store by the end of the year. The men have received some proposals from those wanting to keep the store open, but Fugate said it was not likely that he would accept them.

Many are devastated, but Fugate said he believed that Eso Won’s closing would not leave the city bereft of Black-run bookstores.

Now, there are several in the city.

“The world changed,” Fugate said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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