YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Style & Culture

The 'first black president,' in person

Bill Clinton will sign copies of 'My Life' at Eso Won Books, and its customers are lining up.

June 25, 2004|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

The "first black president" is coming to California, and thousands of people who feel like Bill Clinton is family will get up before sunrise Saturday to try to get a glimpse when he signs 1,500 copies of his autobiography, "My Life," at Eso Won, an independent bookstore in Southwest Los Angeles.

Of course, Clinton isn't really black. But his bond with African Americans goes well beyond politics. Many believe he's one of them. He grew up in Arkansas eating collard greens and sweet potato pie. While campaigning in black churches, he clapped on the beat and knew the words to every song.

"I saw him singing 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' " -- the black national anthem -- "and he knew all the verses. Most [black] people just know the first verse," says James Fugate, co-owner of the bookstore.

Three days before his visit, the hold lights blink on every telephone and customers crowd the checkout counter.

"Is he shaking hands?" asks Raeleen Taylor, a special education assistant.

"Probably not," says Vanessa Cain, a cashier who is responding to patrons between phone calls.

"He shook hands on the one on the news," Taylor says. In Harlem on Tuesday, 2,000 people bought tickets to see him.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 29, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Eso Won -- A Friday Calendar section article in advance of Bill Clinton's appearance at Eso Won Books last Saturday said parking would be available across the street in the lots of the Ralphs and Albertsons grocery stores. In fact, no arrangements had been made with the property management company that operates the Ralphs lot, nor with Albertsons management.

"You don't know what he's going to do. He's going to make up his own rules," Cain answers back.

"Will he give me a kiss on the cheek?" asks Barbara Roberson, an office manager for an elementary school, as everyone laughs. "I admire him so much. I think he's done so much for our community. He put a lot of people of color in office, lots of programs in the inner city.... I'd love to meet him in person," she adds, explaining why she plans to get to Eso Won at 6 in the morning for the 10 a.m. signing.

Just about any bookstore would welcome the business generated by a charismatic and controversial ex-president promoting his just-out 957-page tome. In Los Angeles, Clinton will stop at only two.

"It's been crazy," Fugate says, since word got out that Clinton would stop at Eso Won Books, Southern California's preeminent black bookstore. Fugate had pitched the publisher, Random House.

On Wednesday morning, a Fire Department inspector is walking through the arrangements. The Secret Service has already been here and will be back. The Los Angeles Police Department is making plans to be on site along with several members of the Los Angeles City Council.

It's been crazy too at Brentano's in Century City, the Westside being home to another deeply loyal Clinton constituency. Tonight, the former president will sign at least 1,000 copies of his autobiography there.

"People can start lining up as early as 6 a.m., when the mall opens up," a Brentano's staffer (who is not allowed to speak to the press) tells customers at the store in the Westfield Shoppingtown. At 10 a.m., tickets will be issued to those who have receipts showing they purchased the book there. At 5:30 p.m., after one has waited around all day and run up a $19 parking fee at the mall, the signing will begin.

According to the printed "rules of conduct": "Mr. Clinton will only sign ONE copy of 'My Life' per person ... NO photos ... NO memorabilia ... NO BAGS ... No CELL PHONES ... Mr. Clinton will NOT personalize."

Similar rules will govern the signing at Eso Won. Customers there, however, must actually buy a $35 ticket Saturday to exchange for a signed book.

Phone lines will open at 6 a.m. for credit card purchases.

"What if the phone lines are all busy?" Taylor wants to know.

"Do you have a cellphone?" Crain asks. "Then keep hitting that [redial] button."

An hour later, ticket lines will be allowed to form, one for will-call and one for purchases at the door. Customers are required to bring identification, but are advised to lock their purses, bags, cellphones, cameras and memorabilia in the trunks of their cars.

Because parking will be restricted in the immediate vicinity of Eso Won for security reasons, spaces will be made available across South La Brea Avenue in the lots of two grocery stores, Ralphs and Albertson's. No one will be allowed to camp out overnight.

"I've never seen anything like this" in the 16 years of the store's history, Fugate says. "It's incredible for a big store. For a small store, you certainly will learn a lot. The most important thing I've learned already is that you need to have extra people for the telephones.... Today, the big problem has been answering the phones but also taking care of customers in the store."

Eso Won has 3,200 square feet of space, filled with books by and about and for African Americans. Masks from Mali hang on one wall. Book posters cover other walls. It's a place where you can find a map of Africa, music from Africa and by African Americans, the latest bestsellers on African American lists such as that of Essence magazine, and old, obscure books about black people.

"The excitement level for Clinton is unparalleled," Fugate says. "He's really loved by a lot of people."

Los Angeles Times Articles