Eso Won has long been one of the country’s preeminent Black-owned bookstores and, of course, was indispensable this past year,” noted Ellen Adler, publisher of the New Press, in her nominating letter. “But that’s nothing new: it has long been indispensable—as those who are lucky enough to count it as their local bookstore or who have made the pilgrimage and had a visit well know.”
Originally named Eso Won Books on Wheels, the bookstore, now located in Leimert Park Village, an African American business district in central Los Angeles, was founded by owners James Fugate and Tom Hamilton. From the start, their goal was to sell books at community events. Over the years, Fugate says, “we have worked with local bookselling groups, been a part of the L.A. Times Book Fair, and done events to make sure that Eso Won was seen as not just a Black bookstore for Black people, but a Los Angeles bookstore in which everyone is welcome. As booksellers, we learned early that reading what we each enjoyed was paramount to selling books and running a good bookstore. We have a list of customers who we know are inquisitive about something we say we enjoy. Selling good literature and learning is what has made this job interesting and enjoyable.”
The 1,800-sq.-ft. bookstore boasts an eclectic mix of African American classic titles like W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and Colson Whitehead’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Nickel Boys. In addition to selling books by Black authors, the bookstore has hosted a number of them. “We’ve loved presenting Toni Morrison, Isabel Wilkerson, Eric Jerome Dickey, John Henrik Clarke, Spike Lee, and many, many more,” Fugate says.
Last month Eso Won (the name means “water over rocks” in an Ethiopian language) was one of only six indie bookstores visited for a virtual filming with former president Barack Obama for Independent Bookstore Day. In the video, Obama recalls how Eso Won was one of the first places that invited him for an event, “back when nobody knew who I was, or could pronounce my name.” That reading in 1995, for his memoir Dreams of My Father, drew only five people.
But 10 years later Obama returned, Fugate says, due in large part to how the store treated him for his first book. That time Eso Won partnered with the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum for an event with him that drew 900 people.
Since its founding in the late 1980s, Eso Won has survived a number of difficulties. Like other bookstores, it has been selling books online during the pandemic in order to get by. Following the murder of George Floyd, the L.A. Times reported that Eso Won received as many as 1,000 orders per day and stopped answering the phone because Fugate and Hamilton were overwhelmed. But Fugate says that the store’s biggest challenge occurred 15 years ago when it moved to Leimert Park. Faced with dwindling sales and the threat of going out of business, it survived by receiving financial advice from a retired executive in the Small Business Administration. A loyal customer also changed things by sending an email that went viral after hearing that the store was in trouble and needed people to come in and shop.
“That one email went to the L.A. Unified School District, and then all of L.A., it seemed,” Fugate says. “The community responded like nothing we’d ever seen or expected. Christmas came in October of 2007, and it was amazing. The publishing community also got behind us: Africa World Press, Black Classic Press, Random House, and Powell’s Wholesale all worked with us to keep us going.”
The love and support that Eso Won got from the public and the publishing industry show that the store owners are doing something right by being in constant and selfless service to the people. “Eso Won has worked hard to make Black history something that is a part of America, available to anyone who walked through our doors,” Fugate says. “Now more than any time that we can remember, Black history is being studied and talked about like never before, and Eso Won is pleased to be a part of it.”