Eso Won Books is one of the largest Black-owned bookstores in the U.S. In its 30-year history, the bookshop has seen a parade of prominent Black authors, including Muhammad Ali, President Barack Obama, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, come through its doors for book signings. In recent months and in the wake of unrest over police killings of unarmed Black people, co-owner James Fugate says Eso Won, which means "water over rocks" in an Ethiopian language, has seen a surge in book sales like none other in its history. Below, Fugate reflects on his journey as a Black man in America and as the co-founder of a store that has become a fixture in Los Angeles.
I was born in 1954 and grew up in Detroit. I would say I had a normal childhood: two-parent family, the best cook on the block--my mom--and a neighborhood with a movie theater, a library, a school I could walk to.
After the riots of 1967, the neighborhood profoundly changed. I remember that day. There was smoke, people running in the streets, looting. I didn't remember this until more recently: The Detroit riots stemmed from a young boy being shot in the back by police. The outrage laid the groundwork for what we're seeing more recently with George Floyd. My parents always told me never talk back to any adult, much less the police--and don't run from them. They'll shoot you.
What the riots didn't destroy, the expressway did shortly after. It destroyed the fabric of the community. What was once a thriving neighborhood turned into a place with no stores, and people moved out. Expressways have destroyed inner cities more than anything else.
By the time I hit high school, I was disenchanted with the whole school experience, mostly because of testing. I wouldn't have thought of it as a White construct at the time, but I thought that timed testing wasn't a fair measure of what people seemed to know. I remember in the fifth grade, my White history instructor told us to go home and encourage people to vote so that Wayne County Community College could be established. He said, "A lot of people don't want to see this started, because it's going to benefit your people." I thought, wow, he actually said that: The school is for Black people, and some don't want to see us educated. You could see the stress on his face when he said that.
Wayne County Community College was established and I went there before transferring to the University of Michigan at Dearborn. I started working in bookstores after I graduated--I knew the most about books and music. I used to go to the library almost every week to read Publishers Weekly. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world--it tells you about all the new books coming out.
I wound up managing the college bookstore at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. When I came on, the general book buyer said he was really disappointed because he couldn't get general books to sell there. I said, "I can tell you right away why. You don't have anything these students are interested in. You need more Black books." We started stocking Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stolen Legacy, The Destruction of Black Civilization. It was just a few shelves, but it led to Florida A&M becoming more than a college bookstore--it became a very important Black resource in the community.
I did something similar in the late '80s in Los Angeles for the bookstore at Compton College, a historically Black college. It was there I met two business partners who convinced me to work with them to start a bookstore. They each put in $2,000, and my broke self couldn't put in a dime. At first, it was just a weekend hobby. About a year later, we had tens of crates of books in our garages. We rented a small store and officially opened Eso Won on Slauson Avenue in 1990. We did really well that first Christmas, so I decided someone needed to do it full time, and that was me. We were pretty financially secure within about a year of my running it full time.
We've had some really wonderful highlights over the years. We had Mohammad Ali in the store one Sunday afternoon. He had Parkinson's then but insisted on signing all the books. People were lined up all day to see him.
I had read about this guy Barack Obama who became the president of Harvard Law Review. A year later, he published Dreams From My Father, and we did this nice little book signing with maybe 10 people where everyone sat in a circle. Eleven years later, he's a senator and publishes The Audacity of Hope. He told his publisher when it came to L.A., he wanted to come back to our store, because he liked that we had all read his book and peppered him with questions. More than 900 people came to the second one.
President Clinton in '95 was an event to remember. Toni Morrison. Walter Mosley. Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The real low point I remember is when we moved to Leimert Park around 2007. It was known as a Black business hub, but people didn't really like it, I think mostly because at that time the service wasn't great in a lot of the businesses here--you never knew when they'd be open. I thought we were going to go out of business. Our position was always, if the community doesn't support us, there won't be a store. Apparently, someone overheard me talking in the store one day about how we just needed people to shop with us to turn things around. Apparently, she sent an email out to every employee in the L.A. Unified School District explaining that we were in trouble. The media and politicians' offices started calling. Sales went crazy.
I went to the SBA and talked with them about the problems we were having. I had been in business nearly 20 years but had never done a budget. So I started looking at how much were we spending on inventory and what we owed in bills, and it made all the difference in the world. Moving to a smaller, 1,800-square-foot store helped to lower the rent, too. We've been fortunate that we've never had to apply for government or small-business loans. I know that the inability to get capital has played a huge role in why we don't have enough Black businesses in the country.
We've been lucky to always have politicians who understand us and support us. We've had these incredible book signings with prominent Black authors, which I think they want to be a part of. But I also think it's the quality of our business: If Eso Won says it will be open at a certain time, we're open. And we have a good reputation for giving fair opinions on books.
I do think there are some wonderful books that have the power to change minds. I always recommend Chokehold by Paul Butler. It talks about the same thing I heard growing up--this idea that you could be killed in your interactions with police. I'm pessimistic that the police are going to change the way they interact. We need to continue to be aware of incidents like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin. And while not every police officer is a psychopath, there have been too many incidents--it's really shocking to me. The best option we have is to vote.
The past three months have been unbelievable at the store--just unbelievable. Sale are up at least 50 percent. Last year we did $700,000 or $800,000 in sales. We're going to do at least double that this year. When we had the Clinton signing, we saw a surge in sales and then a backlash. I don't want people thinking we're doing so well they don't need to support us. We need you to buy here.
I know I can't do this forever. I'm 65. For the past 45 years, I've been staying up late reading and then getting up early to work. I hope we'll have somebody who will want to take over. Books are a little different. You have to like them, have a sense for your audience, and have the discipline to go through the catalogs to know what will sell.