By Anita Little
‘Eso won’ is Yoruba for ‘water over rocks’ and symbolizes the reservoir of knowledge that the Eso Won Bookstorein Los Angeles provides. However, lately it has come to represent the troubled waters that Eso Won and other black bookstores across the nation are facing.
“We’ve had a lack of sales and have been struggling for a number of years,” said James Fugate, the co-owner and founder of Eso Won Books, a staple of the black community in Los Angeles that has faced a decline in revenue.
The recent closure of Karibu Books was the death knell for black bookstores as it was the nation’s largest black bookstores chain with six locations in Maryland and Virginia. The untimely end of Karibu is a story being played out coast to coast as large mainstream chains and internet book selling take over.
Becoming the Starbucks of the book selling industry, Barnes and Noble and Borders have become the go-to place for books, leaving independent bookstores coughing in the dust.
“Barnes and Noble didn’t use to be a major issue, but now their stock of black literature has grown,” said Fugate. “On top of that if a person can go online and pay less, that’s what they’re going to do even if they want to support you. That’s the death nail.”
Another problem plaguing black bookstores is the stigma attached to black novelists that all they write about is hardship and oppression. Part of saving black bookstores is convincing black readers that there are black novels that bare relevance to their lives.
“People think if I need history books, I’ll get those here, but if I want a novel, I need to go to Barnes and Noble,” said Fugate. “If somebody’s looking for good summer reading, they don’t want thick, heavy books dealing with racism.”
Large chains do carry black literature, but the books they carry can give an inaccurate representation of the black experience. In a New York Times editorial, “They’re Eyes were Reading Smut,” a Georgia bookseller describes his horror when he visited a Borders bookstore and found that majority of the black literature they carried was erotica.
“The representation is very narrow, and it’s scary what they choose to display. It’s all bling bling, booty-call blaxploitation,” said Nzingha Nommo, the owner of Afriware, Inc. in Oak Park, Ill. “We are a very gifted people, and we have so much more to say than what’s going on in the bedroom.”
There is a cultural danger to the closing of black bookstores since they play an indispensible role in preserving the annals of black culture. In the race for profits, mainstream booksellers usually skip over culturally significant literature and go for less-than-savory titles that will sell.
“Mainstream bookstores don’t provide the same range of literature that black bookstores provide,” said Kassahun Checole, the publisher of Africa World Press in New Jersey. “The big chains are more interested in what’s flashy, what’s up-to-date, what sells the most.”
Unlike the large chains, black bookstores carry out a function much more essential than just selling books, they serve as a meeting ground for the black communities they serve.
“They are forums where African-Americans can convene in the same way the hairdressers shop serves as a forum,” said Checole.
What drives black bookstores and makes them so important: the sense of community, is what will save them in the end according to Checole.
“Black people are choosing to get their books from Barnes and Noble and websites, and they aren’t supporting the local. It all goes back to the community,” said Checole. “But I feel black bookstores will make a comeback.”
For the sake of black literature and ultimately the preservation of black culture, lets hope that the story of black bookstores is one that has a happy ending.
Photo courtesy of Eso Won Books.