On the shelves of the Grass Roots Bookstore, worlds and cultures mix in ways rarely seen on the streets of Los Angeles.
Here works by African-American scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and John Henrik Clarke sit across from books by such Latino writers as Olga Rodriguez, author of "The Politics of Chicano Liberation." Maps of Latin America and Africa rest side by side, while portraits of Malcolm X and Anastazie, an American Indian metaphysician and healer, hang from the walls.
Specializing in black- and Latino-oriented books, the newly opened store on Slauson Avenue is an attempt to provide the two ethnic groups with a means of learning more about themselves and each other, its owners say, at a time when such knowledge is desperately needed.
"When people know more about their culture they feel better," said proprietor Enoch Sneed, who is black. "They get a higher image of themselves. I'm hoping to reach people that way. . . . We want to wake up the African-Americans and the Latinos."
Plans to open Grass Roots were laid long before the city erupted in violence after the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case. But "the uprising accelerated" the pace, Sneed said, and created a greater need for the store.
Fires that ravaged the city during the unrest destroyed the Aquarian Bookshop, the oldest African-American bookstore in Los Angeles and perhaps the nation, making it more difficult to find information about people of African descent.
"We figured now is the time," Sneed said. "People are reaching out for culture. People are craving. The demand is right there for positive information."
The bookstore's multicultural bent evolved from Sneed's 18-year friendship with Emanuel Araya, a native of Costa Rica. Over the years, the two have talked politics, debated philosophy and candidly discussed the racism that has affected both lives.
For Araya, the cultural blend seemed natural.
"The Latinos and blacks have been living for hundreds of years together, amidst each other," Araya said, reflecting on his early years in Costa Rica. "The Latinos come here and they separate. But in Latin America, the ancestors mixed. They didn't care."
At the store one day this week, Araya, Sneed and others spoke of a shared existence and history that too few Angelenos, they say, are aware of today.
"All along here is black people," Araya said, pointing to Brazil on a map of South America.
"In Veracruz, Mexico, too," said Gloria Zambrano Pelayo Wright, who grew up in Mexico. "The music reflects the African culture."
"And when you study the history of Latin American, you find there are several prominent Africans, like Manuel Piar from Venezuela and Rafael Carrera of Guatemala," said Wright's 19-year-old son, Bart. "African presence is worldwide."
That this history is largely unknown is a function of an American school system and society that place too little value on other cultures and people, the group concluded.
Bart Wright, an avid student of African history who writes and performs Afrocentric rap, met Sneed at a lecture on "America Before Columbus." In the months since, the two men have spent many hours discussing history, sharing ideas and planning for the bookstore.
"Right now, people just need to put their heads in the books, because TV is not going to do it," said Wright, who helps select books for the store. "There's too much distortion. The media stereotypes."
Sneed--who does not read or speak Spanish--relies on friends such as Araya to help him select books for his Latino customers. Already the store carries books on Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara and the Chicano movement. But for the most part, it is stocked with volumes about people of African descent.
In addition to the bookstore, Sneed--who owns the storefronts that house Grass Roots and several other businesses--has opened up a gallery next door to be used for book signings and lectures.
For Sneed, the bookstore and gallery are a manifestation of his belief in the ideals of self-determination and economic independence--ideas that are being hailed more and more in the African-American community.
"I didn't want anybody coming in here telling us what to do," said the 64-year-old Tulsa, Okla., native, who retired from a probate real estate business.
Sneed's wife, Bernice, who for 25 years taught elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, added that children, in particular, need to learn about their culture and hear "how we're all brothers."
The store offers an extensive selection of children's books.
The store is not the first of its type--Pasadena is home to the Black and Latino Multicultural Book Center. Nor is it the city's only African-American bookstore. But customers welcome the new venue.
"It's really something we need," said Maxine Lee, a Los Angeles woman who was purchasing books for her 3-year-old granddaughter, Donna. "Maybe if (young people) knew their history. they wouldn't be involved in all the madness--the gangs, the senseless shootings, the crack. The earlier they get it, the better."