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Eso Won, L.A.’s beloved Black-owned bookstore, will be closing its physical shop

People wait in line to enter a bookstore.
Eso Won Books in Leimert Park will close its bricks-and-mortar space at the end of the year.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Eso Won Books, L.A’s widely beloved Black-owned independent bookstore, will be closing its bricks-and-mortar store at the end of the year.

James Fugate, co-owner of the 33-year-old Leimert Park bookstore, confirmed the news to Publishers Weekly after announcing it last week on “The Tavis Smiley Podcast” while talking about this summer’s reading list.

“It’s coming to an end at the end of this year,” Fugate told Smiley, who responded, “Say it ain’t so, man.”

“We’ve been working at it a long time and at some point, I think people reach that point where that daily grind of coming into the store, even though we’re open a small amount of time, you want to end that,” said Fugate, 67, who runs Eso Won with Tom Hamilton, 68. Fugate added that the online store will remain open after the physical storefront is gone.

Fugate has not yet responded to a Times request for comment.

Anthony Graham stood before the cash register at Eso Won Books in Leimert Park, weighing his thirst for knowledge against the funds in his bank account.

The intimate, venerable African American bookstore has hosted book signings by some of the country’s most celebrated Black authors and luminaries, including Spike Lee, Ibram X. Kendi, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Octavia E. Butler, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates and a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

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Fugate and Hamilton founded the bookstore in the late 1980s and changed locations several times before settling for the long haul in historic Leimert Park Village, which they’ve called home for more than a decade.

Eso Won has since established itself as a cultural center for L.A.'s Black community; the shop experienced an especially powerful surge of customers during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. With only Fugate and Hamilton running it, Eso Won struggled to keep up with the sudden torrent of customers and online orders.

But it was always a place where residents could find books about the Black experience, some of them hard to find anywhere else.

Years ago, L.A. poet, scholar and performer Mike Sonksen had been desperately looking for books by British-Jamaican dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson but saw them only online. Until he stopped by his favorite bookstore.

Sales have soared at Leimert Park’s Eso Won books over the past few days, as a stream of customers have come in seeking to better understand the historical underpinnings of the current moment.

“Eso Won was where I would discover things that I didn’t know about,” Sonksen said. “It’s a really important stop as a connoisseur of books.” He called it a city “touchstone” and an “iconic” space that captures the heart and soul of L.A.'s literary community.

“There are places where people find their identities and find their friends,” he said, “and Eso Won was one of those places.”

In the 20 years he’s been shopping at Eso Won, Sonksen has bought hundreds of books from the shop. At one point he was visiting the bookstore up to three times a week.

Author and journalist Lynell George is likewise a longtime shopper and devotee.

Her mother, a high school English teacher, took her to Eso Won’s earlier locations. “She updated her library at school and at home with titles from their shelves,” recalled George in an email. “I’d always raid her bags when she came home.” Ever since, the bookstore has become a fixture in her life.

“James and Tom don’t just sell books, they provide a sense of community,” she said. “They have worked, over all this time, to fill in the gaps especially for Black readers and authors. You’d walk in and you’d just see this bountiful selection and it was exciting to travel through it. ... I always feel rejuvenated after a visit with them.”


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