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Bernice Ligon of Early Black-Owned Bookstore Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“If we waste time being upset,” Bernice Ligon said shortly after the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King, “we’re no better off than the looters.”

Bernice Ligon had reason to be upset. The Aquarian Book Shop and Aquarian Spiritual Center, the nation’s oldest continuously operated black-owned bookstore, first opened by her husband Alfred in 1941, had been reduced to ashes by protesters during the uprising.

The Ligons bore an uninsured loss of about $300,000, including more than 5,000 volumes of literature and history by black writers. But the bookish owners, long schooled in metaphysics, were philosophical. They vowed to reopen.

Legions of intellectuals who frequented the shop, led by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, organized a benefit featuring writers Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. The Southern California Booksellers Assn., the American Booksellers Assn., the Writers and Booksellers Assn., the African-American Publishers, Book-of-the-Month-Club and Ticketmaster all kicked in. Several publishers, including Macmillan and Random House, donated books and forgave or extended the store’s credit.

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“This is the birthing of the Aquarian Age,” Bernice Ligon told The Times. “And birthing ain’t easy.”

In the fall of 1993, the Ligons began a more modest operation at a new location away from the mini-mall at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Western Avenue where their store had burned. After Bernice became ill with liver cancer, the Ligons closed the bookshop but continued to provide materials through their Spiritual Center and from their home.

Bernice Ligon succumbed to the disease on Nov. 3 in Los Angeles, said a longtime Aquarian volunteer, S. Pearl Sharp. She was 88.

The woman born Bernice Goodwin in Riverside moved to Los Angeles in 1942 after a failed marriage. Interested in metaphysics, she met Alfred Ligon who asked her to sell books in the store he had opened a year earlier.

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He had devised the shop’s name from the title of a 1907 book he acquired shortly after coming to Los Angeles to study metaphysics, which he financed through his work as a waiter for the Southern Pacific Railroad (a job that supported the bookstore through its lean years). The book was “The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ,” describing a purported period in Christ’s life of traveling and learning in Tibet, Egypt, Persia and Greece, written by Levi Dowling.

Bernice married Ligon in 1948. She helped him start a Black Book of the Month Club, stocking newly published black literature and offering each book to a mailing list of 500.

With the 1940 census showing less than 5% of Los Angeles’ 1.5 million population was black, their promotion of black writers may have been ahead of its time. The Ligons joked that some of those fresh off-the-press books-of-the-month languished on their shelves until they were old enough to be sold as rare volumes.

During the civil rights era of the 1960s, black studies came into its own and the Aquarian became a hub of cultural activity--lectures, classes in black history, small theatrical productions.

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“It was very active. People got used to coming there,” she told The Times years later. “It was a great time.”

Over the years, the durable bookstore that stocked works by Harlem Renaissance luminaries including Langston Hughes hosted a Who’s Who of literary figures--Rosa Parks; Alex Haley; Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz; Dick Gregory; Margaret Walker; J. California Cooper. Singer Michael Jackson was among the customers.

Bernice Ligon particularly endeared herself to browsing USC and UCLA students by greeting their return visits with custom book lists she had prepared for them.

Outside the shop, Ligon worked within her community. In the 1950s, she was active in the Bureau of Adoption of Babies and Youngsters, or BABY, which helped adoption agencies place African American children.

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After the loss of the Aquarian in 1992, she was honored along with her husband by several organizations, including PEN West and the City of Los Angeles. That year she was the subject of a video in the “Pioneering Women” series produced by the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women, the Los Angeles City Commission and the Women’s Steering Committee of the Director’s Guild of America.

She is survived by husband, Alfred; daughter, Jeni Terrell; son, Alfred Lloyd Ligon; two sisters, Georgia Inman and Elizabeth Goodwin; brother, Hiram Goodwin; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Her daughter from a previous marriage, Zandra, died of cancer some years ago.


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