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Newsletter: A black-owned L.A. bookstore’s ‘incredible surge’

Eso Won Books co-owner James Fugate speaks with customers.
Eso Won Books co-owner James Fugate speaks with customers Kori Decker and Lauren Mesa at his Leimert Park store.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, June 4, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

“Please use the hand sanitizer as you come in,” James Fugate said as he welcomed yet another customer into his small Leimert Park bookstore, motioning toward the folding table in the corner.

Eso Won Books is a black-owned bookstore that caters to black readers, located in a neighborhood that’s often referred to as the cultural heart of black L.A. It has seen “a tremendous spike” in business this week, as a flood of Angelenos from all corners of the city and beyond have sought out books to help them better understand the deep societal fissures that have seemingly cracked wide open in recent days.

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As outrage over George Floyd’s death roiled the nation, many different scenes have played out across the city. There have been massive peaceful protests marred by dark sparks of unrest, massive cavalcades of law enforcement in the streets and mass curfews. There have been unending wells of pain and outrage over the senseless death of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of police, and pain and outrage over the racism made explicit in these days. For many white Americans, the past week has also brought a reckoning of sorts, as they seek to better understand their complicity in these systems — and their place in the fight for racial justice.

[See also: “Column: No, white people. You can’t ease your guilt over racism by paying black people via Cash App” in the Los Angeles Times]

According to Time magazine, “the demand for books about race and antiracism internationally has soared” in recent days, with many intentionally choosing to patronize black-owned bookstores like Eso Won in their pursuit.

Fugate and his co-owner Tom Hamilton had only just reopened their doors after the easing of coronavirus shelter-in-place orders a week ago. The “incredible surge” of people coming in began on Friday or Saturday and it hasn’t let up since.

Eso Won, which which means “water over rocks” in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, opened in a Slauson strip mall in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, it had emerged “as a hub of activity for African Americans, from literati to casual book browsers,” as Erin Aubry Kaplan put it in 1995, back when the store was still in its second location on La Brea Avenue in Inglewood.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, has called Eso Won his favorite bookstore in the country. The current location is on Degnan Boulevard, just east of Crenshaw.

“It’s a staple in the community,” Monica Bailey, a 44-year-old black Baldwin Hills resident who worked at Eso Won for a few years right after high school, said as she browsed. “They were a big part of my upbringing, as far as knowledge and history and investing in the community.”

Fugate, 65, arrived at the store before dawn Wednesday morning to straighten up from the prior afternoon’s rush of customers, and make headway on the overwhelming number of orders that had been placed online and by phone.

He barely had a free moment all afternoon, as customers poured in to browse or pick up preorders.

Phone in hand, he took down credit card numbers and checked shelves for stock, while also fielding queries from the people wandering the store. Some were regulars, like Bailey, but many had made pilgrimages from across the city to buy their books here.

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Earlier in the day, Gov. Gavin Newsom had stopped in while speaking with community members in Leimert Park and purchased “a lot of kids books and some other things too.”

As a group of four women in their 20s chatted with him, Fugate recounted the specifics of a scene involving Thurgood Marshall from Gilbert King’s book “Devil in the Grove,” and suggested Monique W. Morris’s “Pushout,” which explores the criminalization of black girls in schools.

“We really wanted to get some books that touched on history — race history, specifically. American history,” said Lauren Mesa, a 26-year-old white yoga teacher from Long Beach.

The four friends, three of who are white and one of who is black, planned to start a book club of sorts. They had been closely following issues around police brutality, but wanted to better understand the historical trajectory that undergirded current events. They settled on “Pushout” as their shared read, while also picking out an armload of other titles.

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Fugate said that some people were asking for his recommendations, but many were seeking specific titles that had appeared on widely shared antiracism reading lists, including Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.”

“Do you have that book?” a customer who’d overhead Fugate mentioning “How to Be an Antiracist” interjected across the room.

“No, we’re out,” he said. “Out” was a bit of an understatement. The store, which had had six or seven physical copies of Kendi’s book on hand, sold out of “How to Be an Antiracist” on Saturday. They’d since taken 388 additional orders for it in person, online and over the phone — a number that Fugate describes as “almost inconceivable.”

And the phenomenon has been far from limited to Degnan Boulevard. All 326 digital copies of Kendi’s book are checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library, and there’s a 1,322-person waiting list in the wings.

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“It’s a redefining moment, I think,” Fugate said. “What we’re seeing in here is something that is different from Rodney King. It’s different from Trayvon Martin,” he continued, saying that he thought that Trump presidency had pushed racial issues in the country to the forefront.

“People want to know more. People work in places and they don’t understand sometimes some of the issues that might arise with people they work with,” he continued. “They’re not like racists — they’re not some nut who just hates you because you’re black or brown. But they want to understand more.“ His philosophy, he said, has always been that whoever walks through the door is a customer, and their background didn’t matter.

I asked Bailey, the former employee and Eso Won regular, how she felt about seeing so many white faces in the store during such a charged moment.

“I’ve never seen it before,” she told me with a laugh. “It’s interesting.” She went on to say that she hoped whatever knowledge people gained from the books they weren’t buying wasn’t “just something that sits.”

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“It’s one thing to know, but it’s another thing to take action and make change in a revolutionary way.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

As peaceful protests continue, L.A. officials say the LAPD will cut its budget by up to $150 million to reinvest in communities of color: In all, Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged that the city would “identify $250 million in cuts so we can invest in jobs, in health, in education and in healing,” especially in the city’s black community “as well as communities of color and women and people who have been left behind.”

Garcetti also said the city will impose a moratorium on placing people in a statewide database for identifying and tracking gang members — which reform advocates had lobbied for — and will require officers to intervene when they see inappropriate use of force and report misconduct. Los Angeles Times

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More peaceful demonstrations occurred across Southern California on Wednesday, with thousands converging at the Los Angeles civic center to protest Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. Los Angeles Times

Fired officer Derek Chauvin is now facing second-degree murder charges in George Floyd’s death, and three other ex-officers are charged with “aiding and abetting” second-degree murder. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

Confusion abounded Wednesday over the L.A. County curfew, as officials and the sheriff differed on when it began. Los Angeles Times

L.A. Pride is back on, sort of. After previously putting plans for the annual festivities on hold because of the coronavirus, organizers announced that this year’s L.A. Pride will be a peaceful protest march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement held on June 14. Los Angeles Times

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Inside Kylie Jenner’s web of lies: Two years ago, Forbes put the youngest member of the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s face on its cover next to the words “America’s Women Billionaires.” Now, it’s publishing a deep-dive investigation into how the family spent years leading the cosmetics industry and media outlets into thinking Kylie’s business was substantially larger and more profitable than it is — and why Kylie is no longer a billionaire. Forbes

How a Hollywood VFX business built a tool to fight COVID-19. To make sense of complicated and dense data, researchers needed someone who could present the research in a more dynamic, visual way. So they turned Culver City-based Zoic Labs to marry together spreadsheets of data and convert them into interactive digital images. Los Angeles Times

South L.A. has been largely untouched by unrest in recent days, unlike in 1992, when large swaths of the area burned to the ground. That is by design. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

President Trump’s effort to use the military to respond to nationwide protests led to an extraordinary rupture with both his current and former secretaries of Defense on Wednesday, with one rejecting use of active-duty troops against protesters and the other accusing Trump of ordering the military to “violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.” Los Angeles Times

The CDC waited “its entire existence for this moment.” What went wrong? The coronavirus shook the world’s premier health agency, creating a loss of confidence and hampering the U.S. response to the crisis. New York Times

Gov. Newsom said Wednesday that California would “reject” any attempts by the White House to deploy the military in major cities to end civil unrest, in his most outspoken rebuke of Trump in months. Los Angeles Times

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CRIME AND COURTS

Vallejo police shot and killed a man who an officer mistakenly thought had a gun. He had a hammer. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A magnitude 5.5 earthquake struck near Ridgecrest on Wednesday night. Shaking from the quake, which was about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles, was felt across much of Southern California. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Stevante Clark raged after cops killed his brother Stephon in 2018. Now, Clark is emerging as the leader of a particular moment in Sacramento, able to clearly convey and share emotionally the salt-in-the-wound agony of police violence that has defined his life since his unarmed brother was killed in his grandmother’s backyard. Los Angeles Times

Stevante Clark speaks while hoisted on a supporter in front of Sacramento City Hall.
Stevante Clark speaks while hoisted by a supporter in front of Sacramento City Hall on Monday during another day of protests.
(Xavier Mascarenas/Sacramento Bee)
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Fall is now jam-packed for book publishers. That could be a problem, as authors whose release dates were already postponed by the coronavirus will now be fighting for attention in the midst of a presidential election and an ongoing crisis. New York Times

A poem to start your Thursday: “In That Other Fantasy Where We Live Forever” by Wanda Coleman. Poets.org

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 84. San Diego: sunny, 73. San Francisco: sunny, 69. San Jose: sunny, 89. Fresno: sunny, 107. Sacramento: sunny, 102. More weather is here.

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AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Lenore L. Brashear:

12/7/1941, Berkeley, CA. I was 4 years old and scared. The sirens were wailing, my father had donned his National Guard uniform, grabbed his rifle and streaked out the door. My mother, in tears, was hugging me tight. WWII had appeared on our doorstep. The siren wailing was part of “air raid practice,” but my father was always at his post guarding the San Francisco docks before the sirens screamed. This was different. The real thing! I could hear airplanes droning in the sky overhead. We stumbled down the stairs to the shelter in the basement. Darkness closed in as we turned off all the lights and huddled among the blankets.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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