Publishers Weekly has named the L.A.-based indie bookstore Eso Won Books its Bookstore of the Year. Simon & Schuster sales rep Toi Crockett has been named PW Sales Rep of the Year. The announcement was made the afternoon of May 25 during the inaugural U.S. Book Show.

In nomination letters from their colleagues in the publishing industry, Eso Won and Crockett were hailed not only for a mastery of their respective trades but their tireless and successful work in support of the American literary scene and those who sustain it—from authors and booksellers to readers, schools, publishers, and literary organizations.

"It’s truly a great honor to be named the bookstore of the year," said co-owner James Fugate who cofounded Eso Won with Tom Hamilton in 1990. The two accepted the award from their store's back office, surrounded by newly arrived books.

Crockett thanked her colleagues at S&S for their support. “It’s absolutely a group effort and without them and my family and friends, I wouldn't be here," she said

Cultivating Readers and Authors

Eso Won’s place in the pantheon of American bookstores is difficult to overstate. The Black-owned independent bookstore has been a stop for authors including Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, and Isabel Wilkerson, and has made a practice of nurturing authors at the very beginning of their careers. In 1995, a young Barack Obama read at Eso Won from Dreams From my Father in front of an audience of five people. Obama never forgot Fugate’s willingness to host him "back when nobody knew who I was, or could pronounce my name."

Obama has made the store a priority stop ever since, and Hamilton praised the example he has set. "The fact that he keeps reading and trying to learn, I think that’s what you want to show the public," Hamilton said. "You keep learning all your life, [and] you set a great example."

The store’s selection as Bookstore of the Year comes on the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, to which Fugate referred in his remarks. "It is sort of bittersweet when you think that so many people saw what we have been talking about for years and years with the murder of George Floyd," he said. "But it made a tremendous difference at our store, and we thank you for honoring us this way.”

Ellen Adler, publisher at the New Press, referred to the civil rights movement that followed Floyd’s murder when she told PW that “Eso Won has long been one of the country’s preeminent Black-owned bookstores and, of course, was indispensable this past year. 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.”

Earlier this month, Fugate told PW how the bookstore has carved out its place at the heart of L.A.’s intellectual and literary community. “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,” Fugate said.

Fugate and Hamilton said they almost did not make it to 2021, thanking remainder dealer Powell's Books Chicago and the publishers Africa World Press, Black Classic Press, and Penguin Random House, all of which helped see the store through a challenging time 14 years ago. "We were really struggling, and those publishers really stuck by us," Fugate said.

A Sales Rep to Fight For

Simon & Schuster's reorganizations of its sales force in 2014 and 2018 sparked an outcry from bookstore accounts in the East. They did not want to lose Toi Crockett, a sales rep with 15 years of experience they said they could not bear to lose. While most of her accounts shifted west, a few stores' calls were heeded, with Crockett continuing to work with such East Coast stores as [Words] Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J.

In a PW profile earlier this month, the bookstore’s managing principal, Jonah Zimiles, called Crockett, “consistently outstanding,” and credited her honesty, integrity, and exceptional understanding of bookstores’ needs in boosting the bottom line at [Words] through increased sales and savings. Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., told PW that Crockett has “mastered the supply side,” adding: “She catches my errors, she suggests opportunities, and she seems to work 18/7 days.”

For Crockett, books run in the family. Her late grandfather owned a bookstore on Chicago’s South Side, and she grew up in a house full of books. To this day, she said, she is “never not reading a book.”

At the end of the awards presentation, there was even time for some conversation about books. Fugate said the book he was most looking forward to is Nikole Hannah-Jones's The 1619 Project (One World, Nov.), a book-length expansion of The New York Times project of the same name.

In signing off, Hamilton took a moment to thank the people who he said are most important in the ongoing success of the store, reserving his greatest praise for "all the great customers who have come in for many, many years."