Culture Club : James Fugate and Tom Hamilton share a passion: Books. Out of that has grown Eso Won, one of the area’s premier spots for black literature.
It is Tuesday night, but Michael Eric Dyson is holding forth as if it were Sunday morning.
The author, professor and minister strikes the podium at Eso Won Bookstore like a pulpit to emphasize points extracted from “Making Malcolm,” his new book on the cultural impact of Malcolm X. As he slips easily from philosophizing to scat singing to a credible impression of gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, laughter ripples across an audience that numbers about 40 and includes teen-agers, senior citizens, a young woman cradling an infant in her lap.
“Let’s be straight-- Malcolm as a Muslim was oppressing Betty even as he preached as a black public moralist,” Dyson intones. “As (T.S.) Eliot said, ‘Between the idea and reality falls the shadow.’ ”
And between the ideas of a thousand black authors and the reality of black Los Angeles lies the Eso Won Bookstore, which has emerged in the past few years as a hub of activity for African Americans, from literati to casual book browsers.
From behind the cash register, store owners Tom Hamilton and James Fugate listen to Dyson and join in the murmurs of agreement, doubt and outright dissent.
Eso Won, at La Brea and Plymouth avenues in Inglewood, has become a place where dialogue and ideas flower, where sparks fly but rarely combust in the crown jewel of a Southwest L.A. neighborhood populated by exceptional black bookstores--among them, Grassroots on Slauson Avenue and Dawah on
Smaller than the average mall bookstore, Eso Won is as dense and neatly sectioned as a library, though bright splashes of African decor and strains of jazz considerably soften the austerity. On the wall behind the counter hangs a large board advertising a busy schedule of upcoming events.
“I didn’t know how much was here,” said first-time customer and sports enthusiast Jerry Washington, leafing through a biography on controversial baseball star Dick Allen. “This (store) has the biggest selection of black books that I’ve seen.”
Eso Won, which means “water over rocks” in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, indeed has it all--from history to fiction to self-help volumes. In addition, the store is known for regularly hosting readings and signings with authors just as diverse: trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, soul music meister Berry Gordy, poet Nikki Giovanni and home-grown novelist Jervey Tervalon all recently rolled through. Simply put, Eso Won has become the Los Angeles stop for black authors on tour, said Wendy Werris, representative for Oxford University Press.
“James and Tom market the store real well,” said Werris, who dropped by Eso Won to hear Dyson’s talk. “They bring in great writers and critics. They know their backlist. People who love books remember Eso Won and come back.”
The store is also made memorable by its owners, though they shrug off the suggestion. They are opposites in many ways: Fugate, 40, is reed-thin and known for his wry sense of humor; Hamilton, 41, is body-builder muscular and given to expansive bursts of conversation.
But both share a passion for black history and literature. It drew them together first as friends, then as business partners who, driven to be bigger and better, often put in 16-hour days at the store. They also own and operate Compton College bookstore, and have plans to open another Eso Won location.
“See that?” said Hamilton, gesturing to a worn sofa opposite the oak desk in the office. “That’s my bed. This becomes your life.”
Seven years ago, Eso Won was a modest concern on Slauson Avenue near West Boulevard, set well off the beaten path in a nondescript strip mall. Its three upstairs rooms, lined wall-to-wall with books, had a cozy garret feel that invited bibliophiles seeking rare or hard-to-find titles.
Fugate and Hamilton hosted discussion groups that helped nurture the store’s small but sterling reputation as an educational center, the place to go to sort out fact from fiction about icons Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Muhammad and many others lesser known.
And activity was not limited to the store. “I had 20 cases of books in my apartment, Tom had 20 in his garage,” Fugate recalled. “People rang our doorbells at 9 and 10 in the morning saying, ‘Do you have this book? I gotta have it!’ ”
Since moving to the larger Inglewood location nearly three years ago, Eso Won has solidified its status as Los Angeles’ cornerstone of black literature, aided by aggressive advertising campaigns and the demise of the legendary Aquarian Bookstore, which burned to the ground during the 1992 civil unrest. The Aquarian, the city’s oldest black bookstore, rebuilt but has not resumed full operations.
Which is all the more reason why the presence of Eso Won is vital to L.A.'s burgeoning black literary scene, said UCLA associate professor Richard Yarborough.
“Eso Won is willing to bring in anyone who is doing something in black literature--which is what the Aquarian used to do,” said Yarborough, who teaches English and Afro-American Studies. “It was crucial to get some young blood. L.A. is going through a phase of being more nurturing of literary culture; look at growth of coffeehouses, writing groups, poetry readings. It’s absolutely important that Eso Won is ensuring access to all the writers coming through.”
Yarborough added that Eso Won’s financial success during tough economic years has heartening implications for the black community at large.
“Culture as a commercial outlet may be the only way to really reach everyone,” he said. “It’s great to come to an event here and see young people, old people, people who would have never come to a talk or lecture. Eso Won is a place outside of academia, outside of college campuses and classrooms, where all black people can come for education.”
Eso Won’s rapid growth and increased visibility has had its drawbacks. Now inundated daily with material from hopeful authors and publishing houses, Fugate and Hamilton say they are, rightly or wrongly, perceived as arbiters of black literature, quality controllers whose personal preferences determine what makes it to the shelves.
Not true, they both say immediately.
“The bookstore speaks for itself,” Hamilton said. “We pretty much carry everything that comes our way, regardless of what we think of it. If people come in looking for it, we’ll order it.”
Hamilton admits that as Eso Won’s circle encompasses more readers, it has forced the store owners to overcome their aversion to romance novels and some other types of books. Fugate points out that the store’s most popular section features books he dismisses as “tomfoolery"--treatises on so-called conspiracies by whites to eliminate blacks, accounts by white authors on the inherent inferiority of blacks.
“I think it’s all garbage,” said Fugate flatly of such titles as “Beyond the Pale Horse” and “The Unseen Hand: An Introduction to the Conspiratorial View of History.” “But that doesn’t matter. People come in and head straight for it.”
One such book landed Eso Won in the middle of a controversy in 1990, when the notoriously anti-Semitic “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was among the titles Eso Won sold at the African Marketplace Cultural Faire in Los Angeles. City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky sharply criticized the inclusion of such a book at a city-funded event intended to promote racial and cultural harmony. A committee was formed to assess fair vendors more closely, and Fugate and Hamilton quietly dropped the title from their stock at subsequent fairs.
Although they are quick to call the book “hateful garbage,” the owners nonetheless defend their right to sell it.
“It’s information,” Hamilton said. “You read it and make decisions for yourself. ‘The Bell Curve’ is kind of a parallel--it says detrimental things about black people’s intelligence. But we sell it. People need to know what’s out there and what’s being said.”
But there are some books Eso Won won’t carry, many of them sexually exploitative. And in other cases, books don’t make it onto the shelves as quickly as their authors would like.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a local author and lecturer who has published seven books and pamphlets on black sociological issues, believes Eso Won’s celebrity status is potentially dangerous. Although the store had carried all of his previous works, it did not stock his latest, “The Assassination of the Black Male Image,” until customers who came in seeking the book complained loudly about its absence.
“There’s a problem of picking and choosing, of which author they will anoint and expose the public to,” Hutchinson said. “At the same time, the doors close to some local authors like myself. I’ve got experience and credentials, yet here is a black bookstore that won’t do what major chains have done for me. There’s an agenda at work about who is worthy and who is not. And it’s not based on merit, but personal whims.”
Hamilton said that although he does not personally read Hutchinson’s work, Eso Won has no problem stocking it. “Sometimes authors want us to move on their schedule rather than ours,” he said. “They don’t understand that’s not possible sometimes.”
For his part, first-time author Tervalon appreciates the guidance and support Eso Won has provided him.
“They treat writers--all writers--with respect,” he said. “They seem open to the breadth and complexity and diversity of black people. James (Fugate) has quirky opinions, and he can be painfully honest, but I can appreciate that.”
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Coming Attractions Here are some of the events scheduled at Eso Won Bookstore, 900 N. La Brea Ave. (at Plymouth), Inglewood. Info: (310) 674-6566.
* Tuesday: Audrey Chapman signs “Entitled to Good Loving.” 7 p.m.; free.
* Friday and Saturday: Neely Fuller speaks on “The United Independent Compensatory Code System.” 7 p.m.; $5.
* Feb. 15: Dell Jones lectures on “Cultural Bandits.” 7 p.m.; free.
* Feb. 16: Marita Golden signs “Saving Our Sons.” 7 p.m.; free.
* Feb. 21: Poetry Festival featuring Saundra Sharp, Peter Harris, Laini Mataka and many others. 7-10 p.m.; free.
* Feb. 24: Robert Allen signs his anthology of black male writers, “Brotherman.” 7 p.m.; free.
* Feb. 25: Tribute to Dr. Amos Nelson Wilson (Feb. 23, 1941-Jan. 14, 1995). 6 p.m.; free.