Editor's note: Eso Won announced it will close its physical store at the end of 2022.
Right from its founding in 1989, Eso Won Books in Leimert Park has represented Afrocentric identity and a deliberate, public consciousness about Black thought, a consciousness that has been nurtured with care by co-owners James Fugate and Tom Hamilton. “We came up with the phrase ‘As water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books,’ ” Fugate explains.
This belief in books’ emancipatory power can be traced back to Fugate’s youth in Detroit, where a chance encounter with an early edition of the self-help book What Color Is Your Parachute? suggested a career path in books or music. Fugate was that rare young person who visited the library to read Publishers Weekly. As he told Inc. in 2020, “I thought it was the greatest thing in the world—it tells you about all the new books coming out.”
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
A job at a bookstore in Detroit eventually led to employment as the general manager of the campus Barnes & Noble at Florida A&M, a historically Black university. There, Fugate immediately identified the campus community’s need to recognize itself in the books being sold, an idea that might seem self-evident now but was perceived then as radical. That experience brought about an opportunity to manage the bookstore at Compton College, in Los Angeles County. Fugate re-created his transformative success there and saw a need for a service to sell books for visiting Black speakers at off-campus, weekend events. Named Eso Won Books on Wheels, this three-person enterprise lasted until one of its founders departed for graduate school. At the time, Fugate happened to be reading Mama Day, Gloria Naylor’s 1988 novel, which inspired him to keep going.
“At the end of Mama Day, one of the protagonists of the book is told to do something which, to him, makes no sense at all. The protagonist believes in living in the now and not looking back and not having faith in what he can’t understand,” Fugate recounts. “For me, leaving the college book industry and working on my own full-time represented having faith in my abilities and knowing that we could continue to work at building Eso Won.”
In the time since then, you may have heard about Barack Obama’s signings at the bookstore, the first in 1995, with only 10 people in attendance, 5 of whom were Eso Won employees. Or you may have gone to the second, in 2006, which boasted more than 900 attendees.
You may have also been served breakfast as part of the shop’s daylong celebration for Michelle Obama’s Becoming, or placed one of the thousands of orders Eso Won received for anti-racist books after the murder of George Floyd and the deaths of other victims of police violence.
You may have nodded appreciatively when the store was named a Publishers Weekly 2021 Bookstore of the Year, and you may have nerded out over its cameo, hosting a signing by the novelist Brit Bennett, on the final season of Insecure.
In between these points, there are myriad other indelible moments, a rich history much like the intricate and ornate tapestries of iconic Black figures displayed in the store.
Spend any time at Eso Won and it soon becomes clear that a major portion of its longevity and success springs from Fugate himself. Incisive, quick with recommendations, and generous with brilliant anecdotes, he is a consummate bookseller. As for his customers’ loyalty and enthusiasm, his approach to fostering their devotion is deferentially straightforward: “You treat them the way you want to be treated.”•
Eso Won Books
4327 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles, esowonbookstore.com
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