When friends tried to discourage Enoch Sneed and Oba Williams from opening a bookstore in Los Angeles last summer, citing the civil unrest and a slack economy, the couple would have none of it.
"Opening a bookstore made sense," Sneed said. "Our motivation was to fill a gap. . . . The No. 1 one thing that's needed in the community is information. It was time to do it."
What Sneed and Williams did last August, after months of preparation that began before last spring's riots, was open Grass Roots Bookstore, a shop at 4441 W. Slauson Ave. chock-full of black and Latino titles and targeted at the ethnic mix of the surrounding communities.
Browsers in Grass Roots can find speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. alongside a Spanish translation of speeches by Malcolm X. Poetry volumes by Maya Angelou are as well-stocked as those of Jimmy Santiago Baca.
"We wanted to bring the two factions together," said Sneed, a genial 65-year-old who, like his wife, enjoys holding in-depth conversations with regular customers. "After the so-called rebellion last year, I realized Latinos are as unrestful as blacks. They suffer from lack of jobs and economic deprivation, too. I wanted to bring us all face to face."
Shortly after opening, the couple hung a green, black and red sign in the store that reads "African-Latino 'Message to the Masses,' " but they said the welcome was slow to get through to aficionados of Latino works.
"The sales weren't phenomenal, but I've been more and more encouraged by the response from the community," Sneed said.
Sneed and Williams, along with the hair stylist who last occupied the space, spent several months preparing the shop, cleaning, ordering books and laying down the striking South African marble that Sneed says represents the richness and struggle of people of color everywhere.
In addition to books on people of African and Latino descent, the store carries cassettes and CDs of historical speeches and music. A space next door provides a room for book signings and readings, most recently by fiction writer Bebe Moore Campbell and historian John Henrik Clarke.
There is also a children's section that is a dream realized for Williams, a former elementary school teacher who painstakingly amassed the section's wide selection of titles and materials.
Williams is excited about the couple's plan to open a gallery next month that will showcase works by black and Latino artists. "I'm glad we had the wherewithal to do this all with my own money," said Sneed, a former real estate broker. "I don't want any help. This is my own contribution to the community."
Brian DeCoud, who was shopping for books recently with his 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca, said the bookstore is a huge contribution to the neighborhood. "You can find books on everybody from Magic (Johnson) to Malcolm," he said. "You can't have too many places like this in the community."
Cynthia Wright, who was perusing a set of teaching materials on non-European history, said the store's outside sign--"Your History"--intrigued her.
"I know exactly what the sign meant," said Wright, a second-grade teacher. "It's all about keeping your eyes open to the truth. It's important to supplement regular school curriculum with what's here. I'm definitely coming back."