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L.A. black-focus bookshop may close

Eso Won welcomed presidents, candidates and entertainers, but the independent bookseller finds it hard to compete with chains, Internet.

October 05, 2007|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

When President Bill Clinton flew into town in 2004 and needed a spot to sit for a few hours and sign a few hundred books, he chose Eso Won bookstore. Sen. Barack Obama and singer Patti Labelle have signed their books in the same store.

Eso Won has grown famous by hosting book-signings by nationally recognized figures and entertainers seeking to pitch memoirs, but it hasn't grown prosperous.

After 20 years of hawking books -- some by popular authors; others, scholarly works, with rare and exotic titles -- L.A.'s leading independent bookstore specializing in writings by African Americans is facing bankruptcy.

Indeed, Eso Won may be closing its doors by the end of the year.

"We are suffering from what other independent bookstores have found -- that it's tough to compete against the Internet and the big chains," said James Fugate, a co-owner of the Leimert Park store.

News of Eso Won's difficulties has sparked an outpouring of support.

On Sunday, the pastor at the 19,000-member First African Methodist Episcopal Church will urge parishioners at all three services to buy books at the store.

"It is essential that we support businesses that educate, enlighten and help perpetuate our culture," said Pastor John J. Hunter, who calls the bookstore "a treasure in the African American community."

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and political analyst who heads the Urban Policy Roundtable, said his organization would urge people to patronize the store.

"We just want people to go to the store and buy books -- buy one for yourself or give one as a gift," Hutchinson said.

"Eso Won has stood the test of time. It has gone beyond just being a bookstore. It has sunk solid ties in our community."

This week Hutchinson kicked off his buy-books campaign by purchasing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' new book, "My Grandfather's Son."

He said he'll also buy some children's books. "We have five grandchildren, so I figure I'll spread them around," he said.

Encouraged by calls to help their struggling establishment, Fugate and Thomas Hamilton, the store's other co-owner, welcome the help, but also see the likelihood of closing as something they may not be able to avoid.

"If people decide they don't want us, then it's time for us to leave," Hamilton said.

Fugate and Hamilton started out by selling books from their car. Over the years, the store has had several locations, including a house on Slauson Avenue in L.A., a storefront in Inglewood on La Brea Avenue, farther north on La Brea in Los Angeles, and now on Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park -- each time seeking a foothold in a black community that itself has been shifting.

Eso Won's book-signings have been major events, some even major coups like the 2004 visit by Clinton.

"Clinton told all his friends he wanted them to meet him at Eso Won," Fugate said. "James Hahn came by, the president of Honda came, and Clinton's brother came. They were the nicest people.

"Then when Clinton walked in, he said he wanted to do something to help an independent bookstore and that he was happy to be here," Fugate recalled.

In several hours of furious signing, the bookstore sold more than 1,800 copies of the former president's book "My Life," a record for the bookstore.

And that was more than double the number of books sold by former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden during a visit at the store in the '90s.

But despite successful appearances by Obama and others, Thomas and Fugate said that sales had become progressively worse and the bookstore has barely managed to stay afloat.

Some longtime customers learned of the bookstore's trouble and called offering their concern. "They call but they don't come and buy," said Fugate, who said he suspects that some customers find it hard to believe that Eso Won may really go out of business.

City Councilman Bernard C.Parks said his office was doing all it could to assist the bookstore, which may be hampered by its location, just off -- but not visible from -- Crenshaw Boulevard. "We hope they can hold on so we can bring more attention to the store," he said.

john.mitchell@latimes.com

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