Alfred Ligon, founder of the Aquarian Book Shop in Los Angeles, the country's oldest continuously operated black-owned bookstore, died at the age of 96 on August 10.
Ligon was born in 1906 in Atlanta. After moving to Chicago in his youth, he became a ballroom dance instructor and printer's apprentice. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1936.
With $100 saved from his salary as a Southern Pacific Railroad waiter, Ligon opened the store in 1941 and named it after the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ligon had an abiding interest in black history and built a collection of historic documents, including drafts of Marcus Garvey's speeches and the letters of W.E.B. Du Bois. During the Civil Rights movement, the store became a center for activists, hosting lectures, plays and classes on black history. In 1951, Rosa Parks gave a talk at the store.
Maya Angelou, who first visited the store in 1955, told the Los Angeles Times that Ligon was a gentleman as well as a fine bookseller. "The most ragged itinerant was treated with as much respect and elegance as well-dressed professionals or academics who came in there," she said.
As interest in African-American history and black activism waned and black bookstores around the country started closing, Ligon kept the Aquarian open as a community service, he told the Times in 1982.
"It's a starvation business," he said. "But we're an institution. Even just a trickle of people who want these books justifies our existence."
Tragedy befell the bookseller in 1992 when the store was burned to the ground during the riots following the Rodney King verdict. But Ligon was charitable about losing his store: "I realized that these things had to be destroyed to give one an opportunity to move to a higher stage," he told the Times. He then forgave the rioters, saying, "They were expressing their joy and sorrow and a change in consciousness—I can't mourn over that."
A group of independent bookstores solicited donations and organized a benefit featuring Maya Angelou and Alice Walker that raised more than $70,000 to reopen the store. It lasted another two years, until 1994, when Ligon's wife fell ill and the store was closed.
Ligon, sticking to his message to the end, continued to give talks on African spiritualism and black history in a room in his home, which he had transformed into a lecture hall.
He was honored by the Los Angeles Public Library in 1993 with a Living Legend Award.