Independent, Black-owned bookstore Eso Won Books, part of the Los Angeles book scene for more than 33 years, will close by the end of 2022, co-owner James Fugate told PW. Fugate said the same on Tavis Smiley’s June 7 KBLA podcast, after sharing a summer reading list of African American and BIPOC authors. “It’s coming to an end at the end of this year,” he told Smiley, who responded, “Oh, James, say it ain’t so, man!”
Named PW’s Bookstore of the Year in 2021, “Eso Won’s place in the pantheon of American bookstores is difficult to overstate,” wrote PW reporters Alex Green, Eugene Holley Jr., and Claire Kirch. Authors, including Ibram X. Kendi, Spike Lee, Nalo Hopkinson, and Charles Wright have dropped by for readings and signings; Jacqueline Woodson and Rachel M. Harper gave the store a shoutout last February on Oprah Daily. In 1995, a not-yet-famous Barack Obama presented Dreams From My Father to an Eso Won audience of five people, PW reporter Eugene Holley Jr. wrote. Obama returned 10 years later to greet an audience of 900, in an event co-sponsored by Eso Won and the Urban Issues Breakfast Forum.
Fugate co-owns Eso Won with Tom Hamilton, and “fully our plan is to say that we are done at the end of this year,” Fugate said. “I’m 67 and Tom is 68. I’ve been in the book business since 1980, when Reagan was elected president. Both of us are sort of tired of going in to work every day, even if it’s only four hours” in person, and “neither of us have had a vacation in over two years.”
Although Fugate and Hamilton get occasional help from friends, they are the sole staffers of the 1,800-square-foot store and online site. They lease space in a property on Degnan Boulevard in L.A.’s Leimert Park, and when the building’s owner offered all tenants a new four-year lease last year, they declined. “We knew our plan was to close,” said Fugate, “We can end the lease in December.”
“I just emailed a rep and told him I wanted to cancel our appointment on Wednesday, because I can only see us ordering very small quantities of books, maybe three copies of each, because I have people in mind who will want to buy them,” he added.
Whether Eso Won will retain its online retail presence is an open question. “We’re going to explore that—I didn’t want to be final [when I talked about it to Smiley],” said Fugate. “Tom says he wants to totally leave it,” and orders are down from the pandemic’s overwhelming 1,000 orders per day to around 50 per day. “Customers we’ve known a long time will email us about books,” Fugate reflected, and he isn’t sure yet whether to direct them elsewhere.
Symbolically and materially, the closure of a Black-owned business will shake the entire book community. “I saw Michael Eric Dyson about a month ago, and he was very upset by it,” said Fugate, and others have expressed dismay as well. “From the response, I got a sense it was going to be bigger than what Tom and I [expected].”
“People got to know us because we carry such a wide selection,” Fugate said, and Eso Won’s business saw an “upsurge because of the tragic murder of this guy [George Floyd].” Fugate looks for other Black-owned West Coast bookshops that grew during the pandemic—among them L.A.’s Malik Books and Oakland’s Marcus Books—to sustain the movement.
“It’s not like I won’t miss the book business—I will, and Tom may miss it too,” Fugate continued. His primary concern is that independent publishers and stores manage to thrive as older indies move on. “Every so often, we get a 1619 Project from the majors,” he said. “I just hope we continue to have stores that will support Black Classic Press and Africa World Press and [Baltimore-based] African World Books. We are going to need bookstores that make sure those smaller companies are part of the supply chain, and not just the majors.”