Tucked into the historic community of Leimert Park, you'll find Eso Won Bookstore, a captivating independent shop that not only serves the local African-American community but also represents it by selling works by African-American authors.
Co-owner James Fugate never planned to own a bookstore. He originally wanted to be an attorney, but changed his mind a year after graduating college. "I decided that the things I knew most about were books and music," he tells L.A. Weekly. But working in the music industry didn't appeal to him, either. "I would have real trouble selling music that I didn't like," he admits.
For the Detroit native, books have always been somehow different. Even if he hated the subject matter, Fugate had less trouble selling bad books than anything else that was bad. So for nearly a decade, he worked in college bookstores, a gig that took him from Detroit to Florida and back to Detroit. In 1987, he made yet another job-related move — this time to Southern California — in order to run the bookstore at Compton College. There was just one problem: The shop barely had any books by African-American authors, because it was actually leased from Barnes & Noble.
Fortunately, Fugate soon met his future business partner Tom Hamilton, who had always wanted to open an independent bookstore. "The other partner worked at JPL," Fugate recounts. "Tom worked at Chevron — he had three boys, was married with three kids." With all future Eso Won founders working full-time jobs, Fugate didn't think running an independent bookstore was feasible. "But then I started thinking, 'Well, if you do it on the weekends, it's your time.' I felt more comfortable doing it, because I didn't want what we were doing to end. I didn't want to stop doing what I was doing with Compton. I just didn't want Barnes & Noble to come in to our community."
The trio came up with the idea for an African-American–owned bookstore in Leimert Park at a "Free Nelson Mandela" rally. But what was going to be its name? "I wanted something simple like 'Black Books International,'" Fugate says. But they also wanted something that would go back to Africa. One of them had just returned from Aswan, Egypt, which inspired Fugate. "They call Aswan 'the Valley of the Kings.' And they're buried underwater, many of them," he says. That's when he came up with the idea: "As water flows over the rocks, so does knowledge flow through books." And so Eso Won — the African name for Aswan — was born.
At first they sold books out of their homes, digging through boxes whenever someone called to ask if they happened to have a specific volume. "And then you'd have to go through every damn carton to get it, and it was always the last one," Fugate laughs. Soon, however, they found a space on Slauson and Crenshaw called Africana Imports, located on the first floor of a house. The second floor was empty.
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In the beginning, the three men all took turns working part-time shifts. After the first holiday rush, however, it was obvious someone was going to need to step in and take over full-time. "And I wasn't married, no kids," Fugate explains. "And I said, 'OK, at some point, you have to step out and take a chance.' And so it made sense, if anyone was going to quit and run it full-time, it should be me."
Hamilton and Fugate's third partner left to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics, and Eso Won moved to La Brea and Plymouth around the time of the 1992 riots. Meanwhile, Hamilton also took the plunge and left his gig to devote himself entirely to Eso Won, which is now at its fifth location. "We've been running it full-time ever since," Fugate says.
Fugate still doesn't have a wife or kids, but he did give us a bookstore.
Eso Won Bookstore, 4327 Degnan Blvd., Leimert Park; (323) 290-1048, esowonbookstore.com. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m.