Alfred Ligon, founder of the country's oldest continuously operated black-owned bookstore whose belief in metaphysics eased his sorrow over the store's razing in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, has died. He was 96.
Ligon died Saturday at Beverly Hospital in Montebello after a period of poor health, said longtime bookstore volunteer S. Pearl Sharp.
Ligon opened the Aquarian Book Shop in 1941 and watched its success rise and fall with society's interest in black history. Opened when Los Angeles' population was less than 5% African American, the store was ahead of its time in promoting black writers and cultural development.
Ligon opened the shop with $100 saved from his salary as a Southern Pacific Railroad waiter. He bought fiction, nonfiction and metaphysics books from a secondhand shop downtown. The store puttered along until the civil rights movement and corresponding interest in black history transformed the shop into a hub of cultural activity: lectures, classes on black history, small theatrical productions.
Works by Harlem Renaissance luminaries including Langston Hughes and hosted authors such as Alex Haley and Maya Angelou were well stocked. Ligon, who ran the shop with his wife, Bernice, also made available to researchers his collection of historic documents that included drafts of Marcus Garvey's speeches and letters of W.E.B. DuBois.
The Aquarian was a beacon to West Coast blacks searching for enrichment, said Angelou, who first visited the store in 1955. She admired the Ligons' courteous, graceful manner as much as their thorough selection.
"Their most ragged itinerant was treated with as much respect and elegance as well-dressed professionals or academics who came in there," she said by phone from her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
For Los Angeles writer Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who started visiting the shop as a Los Angeles City College student in 1963, the store and its resources were a revelation at a time when Southern California was isolated from the civil rights mainstream.
"He created an environment of comfort and intellectual stimulation," Hutchinson said. "There were no pretensions about him, no ivory tower intellectualism. He strongly felt he had a duty to really be a solid mentor to young people and point them in the right direction in terms of understanding their past."
As interest in African American history faded and black bookstores around the country started closing, Ligon kept the shop open as a community service, he told The Times in 1982.
"It's a starvation business," he said. "But we're an institution. Even just a trickle of people who want these books justifies our existence."
That sense of obligation compelled Ligon to reopen the store after the site at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Western Avenue was reduced to ashes in the 1992 riots--a year after its 50th anniversary and days after Rosa Parks gave a talk there.
A week after the riots, Ligon was philosophical about the loss, using his belief in metaphysics principles to cope.
He saw the destruction of the store and its 7,000 volumes as part of a 500-year cosmic cycle that would enable a phoenix to rise from its ashes.
"I realized that these things had to be destroyed to give one an opportunity to move to a higher stage," he told The Times. He later added that he didn't blame the looters.
"They were expressing their joy and sorrow and a change in consciousness," he said. "I can't mourn over that."
A consortium of independent bookstores organized donations and a benefit with Angelou and Alice Walker that raised more than $70,000 for the store's rebuilding on Adams Boulevard. But the store never regained its momentum, and it closed in 1994 after Bernice Ligon was diagnosed with liver cancer.
The couple continued to provide materials from their home, with Alfred Ligon giving talks on African spiritualism and black history in a room he had transformed into a lecture hall.
Ligon was born in Atlanta and raised in Chicago, where he worked as a ballroom dance instructor and printer's apprentice. He came to Los Angeles in 1936 to study metaphysics, and soon bought the book from which he would derive his store's name, "The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ," a 1907 work that described a purported period of travel and learning in Christ's life.
He met his wife in 1942 and asked her to sell books in his store. The couple married in 1948, and she died two years ago of cancer at 88.
Ligon is survived by his daughter, Jeni Terrell; son, Alfred Lloyd Ligon; sister, Jeni LeGon; six grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is being planned for September.