On a recent balmy afternoon, Darlene Bishop of Los Angeles visited the Aquarian Book Shop on south Western Avenue to buy a book for her 2-year-old daughter, Kenisha.
The $3.95 paperback, titled “AfroBets-123,” with black children dangling around letters and numbers, isn’t sold at the typical bookstore, however, but primarily at bookstores that specialize in black literature.
“She is going to learn her alphabet and learn how to count” while looking at children like her, Bishop said with a smile.
After a slow period during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, interest in African-American culture has bounced back strongly, triggering an upsurge in the number of black bookstores, insiders say. Black people young and old are eager to learn their history and read books by and about blacks.
The successes achieved by prominent blacks such as Jesse Jackson, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, film director Spike Lee and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder have helped boost interest. But interest has also been stimulated by such volatile events as the Howard Beach killing in New York and the recent series of racially motivated bombings in the South.
Major chains such as B. Dalton Bookseller and Waldenbooks have established or beefed up their African-American studies sections, hoping to lure customers and cash in on the trend.
David Lemaire, manager of the downtown B. Dalton on north Los Angeles Street, said black literature is the store’s third-best selling category, he said.
But the chain stores’ selections, usually limited to books by such well-known authors as Toni Morrison and Richard Wright, don’t compare in volume or variety to those of the specialized bookstores. Black bookstores often carry not only the works of high-profile authors but also hard-to-find books such as “Stolen Legacy” by George James and “The Destruction of Black Civilization” by Chancellor Williams. These two books have recently been reprinted because of demand.
“You won’t find one-10th or one-fifth of the books that we have here at a B. Dalton,” Alfred Ligon, owner of the Aquarian Book Shop, said proudly.
His sweet-smelling, incense-filled store--perhaps the nation’s oldest black-owned bookstore--stocks 5,000 volumes, ranging from African history to children’s books.
Ligon founded his store in 1941, calling it the Aquarian Library & Bookshop, after a book titled “The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ” by Levi Dowling. He shortened the name in 1965.
Through times of inflation, computerization, changes in location and competition from other bookstores, television and the movies--the shop has survived.
In 1941, Alfred Ligon--then a waiter for Southern Pacific Railroad--opened the shop in the basement of his home on Jefferson Boulevard with about $100 in personal savings. He and his sister, Jeni LeGon, bought metaphysics, nonfiction and fiction books from a secondhand store downtown.
Books by historians J. A. Rogers and W. E. B. DuBois and poet Langston Hughes were later added to the store’s inventory. Back then, a hardback book cost a couple of dollars, Alfred Ligon said. Today, hardbacks average $25 and up.
In November, Alfred, 83, and his wife, Bernice, 76, relocated the bookshop for a third time. They moved from west Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to south Western Avenue, in a shopping plaza, in part to provide free parking for customers.
It was in the 1960s when “black people’s consciousness changed” that the bookshop really caught on in the black community, he said. Lots of stores opened during the civil rights movement, but many later died because of financial woes and a lack of support.
The Ligons, supplemented by Alfred’s pension, say they aren’t in the bookselling business to become rich. “I don’t make a great deal of profit, but the business is able to sustain itself,” said Alfred Ligon. His new store, valued at $175,000, has a $20,000 computer to log all of the inventory, he said.
Meanwhile, other black bookstores hope to flourish as well.
Haki Madhubuti, owner of Third World Press in Chicago and head of the African-American Publishers & Booksellers Assn., said there are “15 times” as many shops today as in the 1960s. He estimated that there are 60 black publishers and 250 black bookstores, most on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
“There’s a resurgence of interest in African-American history . . . taking place, and that’s why Pyramid has been able to expand from one to two stores, and now three stores,” said Hodari Abdul-Ali, manager of Pyramid Bookstores in Washington.
In Los Angeles, there are a handful of black bookstores, among them Dawah Book Shop in the Crenshaw District and Eso Won Books on West Slauson Avenue.
Because mainstream stores wouldn’t sell books by and about blacks in the past, “we were forced to deal with our own folks and help disseminate information . . . that our people demanded and needed,” said H. Khalif Khalifah, who publishes Your Black Books Guide, a free newspaper, in Newport News, Va.
Most black bookstores are located within black communities, advertise in black publications and rely upon word of mouth to attract new patrons.
At the Aquarian, annual sales range from $100,000 to $125,000, said Alfred Ligon, an Atlanta native. He said that represents a 25% increase over the past five years. Singer Michael Jackson and his mother are among the thousands who have visited the store.
Ligon, who calls his store “an institution” in the black community, said the shop logs sales of $50,000 during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Kwanzaa, a seven-day African-American spiritual festival beginning Dec. 26.
It cost $65,000 to $70,000 to open and modernize the new 2,800-square-foot site, Alfred Ligon said.
It was money, or the lack of it, that prevented Ligon from accepting an invitation two years ago to move into the Crenshaw Baldwin Hills Plaza--a two-level mall in the black community near Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards.
“If we went into Baldwin Plaza,” Alfred Ligon says, “it would have cost us $200,000. . . . It wasn’t economically feasible.”
Ligon continued: “It would have been 10 years before we could take anything out of it.”
Larry Williams, a customer who was thumbing through a book on the Temptations singing group one recent day, said the Aquarian “has what I need.”
Added Williams, an attorney and resident of the Crenshaw District who has patronized the shop for almost 10 years: “It’s good to see a thriving (black) business . . . in a black area when so many are boarded up.”