Popular L.A. bookstore that held signings for Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee, is closing its doors

"There are places where people find their identities and find their friends," said a devoted patron, "and Eso Won was one of those places."

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One of the most beloved Black-owned bookstores in Los Angeles is closing up its brick-and-mortar space at the end of this year.

An owner of Eso Won Books, beloved by all who visited it in South L.A.’s historic Leimert Park neighborhood, shared that the store was shutting its doors on The Tavis Smiley Podcast last week while talking about Summer 2022’s reading list. 

“It’s coming to an end at the end of this year,” James Fugate told Smiley, who, according to The Los Angeles Times, said in response, “Say it ain’t so, man.”

This 2012 photo shows Rodney King outside Eso Won Books in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood, where he would sign copies of his book, “The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption.” The Black-owned Eso Won is closing its physical doors after 33 years directly serving the community. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

“We’ve been working at it a long time and at some point, I think people reach that point where that daily grind of coming into the store, even though we’re open a small amount of time, you want to end that,” said Fugate, 67, who runs Eso Won with co-owner Tom Hamilton, 68. 

There will still be an online Eso Won after the shop closes, but the shutdown of its 33-year-old physical location will mean scores of memories left behind, like when some of the culture’s most noted writers and personalities signed books for patrons. Per The Times, the cozy bookstore has hosted decades of events featuring, among its tony roster, such authors as Octavia E. Butler, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Ibram X. Kendi, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, police violence victim Rodney King, and a future acclaimed president named Barack Obama.

Eso Won was founded in the 1980s and moved around before settling in Leimert Park Village, the unapologetically Black district seeing a resurgence thanks to a younger crowd — people who stay hunched over their phones and computers more than books. 

There is a long history to Eso Won that will hopefully translate online.

“James and Tom don’t just sell books, they provide a sense of community,” journalist Lynell George, a veteran store customer and author, told The Times. “They have worked, over all this time, to fill in the gaps, especially for Black readers and authors. You’d walk in and you’d just see this bountiful selection and it was exciting to travel through it. … I always feel rejuvenated after a visit with them.”

It’s indeed possible to feel that way after a visit to Eso Won’s website, where devotees know they can locate either hard-to-find titles or new releases they may not have thought of buying, like Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration by Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel or Act Like You Got Some Sense: And Other Things My Daughters Taught Me by Jamie Foxx. But nothing online can ever match hanging out at the beloved book store.

“There are places where people find their identities and find their friends,” said local scholar and poet-performer Mike Sonksen, “and Eso Won was one of those places.”

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