It is Tuesday night, but Michael Eric Dyson is holding forth as if it were Sunday morning.
The author, professor and minister strikes the podium at Eso Won Bookstore like a pulpit to emphasize points extracted from "Making Malcolm," his new book on the cultural impact of Malcolm X. As he slips easily from philosophizing to scat singing to a credible impression of gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, laughter ripples across an audience that numbers about 40 and includes teen-agers, senior citizens, a young woman cradling an infant in her lap.
"Let's be straight-- Malcolm as a Muslim was oppressing Betty even as he preached as a black public moralist," Dyson intones. "As (T.S.) Eliot said, 'Between the idea and reality falls the shadow.' "
And between the ideas of a thousand black authors and the reality of black Los Angeles lies the Eso Won Bookstore, which has emerged in the past few years as a hub of activity for African Americans, from literati to casual book browsers.
From behind the cash register, store owners Tom Hamilton and James Fugate listen to Dyson and join in the murmurs of agreement, doubt and outright dissent.
Eso Won, at La Brea and Plymouth avenues in Inglewood, has become a place where dialogue and ideas flower, where sparks fly but rarely combust in the crown jewel of a Southwest L.A. neighborhood populated by exceptional black bookstores--among them, Grassroots on Slauson Avenue and Dawah on
Smaller than the average mall bookstore, Eso Won is as dense and neatly sectioned as a library, though bright splashes of African decor and strains of jazz considerably soften the austerity. On the wall behind the counter hangs a large board advertising a busy schedule of upcoming events.
"I didn't know how much was here," said first-time customer and sports enthusiast Jerry Washington, leafing through a biography on controversial baseball star Dick Allen. "This (store) has the biggest selection of black books that I've seen."
Eso Won, which means "water over rocks" in the Amharic language of Ethiopia, indeed has it all--from history to fiction to self-help volumes. In addition, the store is known for regularly hosting readings and signings with authors just as diverse: trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, soul music \o7 meister \f7 Berry Gordy, poet Nikki Giovanni and home-grown novelist Jervey Tervalon all recently rolled through. Simply put, Eso Won has become \o7 the \f7 Los Angeles stop for black authors on tour, said Wendy Werris, representative for Oxford University Press.
"James and Tom market the store real well," said Werris, who dropped by Eso Won to hear Dyson's talk. "They bring in great writers and critics. They know their backlist. People who love books remember Eso Won and come back."
The store is also made memorable by its owners, though they shrug off the suggestion. They are opposites in many ways: Fugate, 40, is reed-thin and known for his wry sense of humor; Hamilton, 41, is body-builder muscular and given to expansive bursts of conversation.
But both share a passion for black history and literature. It drew them together first as friends, then as business partners who, driven to be bigger and better, often put in 16-hour days at the store. They also own and operate Compton College bookstore, and have plans to open another Eso Won location.
"See that?" said Hamilton, gesturing to a worn sofa opposite the oak desk in the office. "That's my bed. This becomes your life."
Seven years ago, Eso Won was a modest concern on Slauson Avenue near West Boulevard, set well off the beaten path in a nondescript strip mall. Its three upstairs rooms, lined wall-to-wall with books, had a cozy garret feel that invited bibliophiles seeking rare or hard-to-find titles.
Fugate and Hamilton hosted discussion groups that helped nurture the store's small but sterling reputation as an educational center, the place to go to sort out fact from fiction about icons Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Elijah Muhammad and many others lesser known.
And activity was not limited to the store. "I had 20 cases of books in my apartment, Tom had 20 in his garage," Fugate recalled. "People rang our doorbells at 9 and 10 in the morning saying, 'Do you have this book? I gotta have it!' "
Since moving to the larger Inglewood location nearly three years ago, Eso Won has solidified its status as Los Angeles' cornerstone of black literature, aided by aggressive advertising campaigns and the demise of the legendary Aquarian Bookstore, which burned to the ground during the 1992 civil unrest. The Aquarian, the city's oldest black bookstore, rebuilt but has not resumed full operations.
Which is all the more reason why the presence of Eso Won is vital to L.A.'s burgeoning black literary scene, said UCLA associate professor Richard Yarborough.