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'We’re Book Activists’: On Juneteenth, Recognizing The Role Of LA’s Black-Owned Bookstores

An African-American man with graying hair wearing a green t-shirt and a necklace with black glasses hung on them points at three shelves of books, yellow, blue, brown, purple, and green.
Malik Muhammad shows off his selection in Malik Books.
(Kyle Stokes
/
LAist)
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As a young man, Malik Muhammad believed he would return home to Washington, D.C., with his USC degree to embark on a quiet career in federal government jobs.

Then books came along and shook Muhammad’s foundation. Books that challenged his conceptions of Black history — it “didn’t start with just slavery; that’s what I thought” — and opened his eyes to the urgency of social issues.

“Books sparked me,” he said. “They elevated me. They changed my consciousness. It made me feel different about the way I looked at myself; I had a degree, but I didn’t have a knowledge of self.”

In 1990, Muhammad opened Malik Books. For 32 years, his customers have come to the store to find more than titles by Black authors: “They come here to see themselves, to find representation of themselves.”

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In California, Malik Books is among a dozen bookstores listed by the African American Literature Book Club that serve as crucial access points to messages about Black history, culture and community.

That list will soon shrink by one. The owners of Eso Won Books in Leimert Park announced they will close their physical store by the end of the year, though they’ll continue selling books online. The famed retailer in the (quickly-gentrifying) Leimert Park neighborhood has hosted talks and book signings by luminaries ranging from former President Barack Obama to journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates to actress Issa Rae.

Muhammad himself has bought books from Eso Won — which opened around the same time — and often refers customers to the store when they sell a title Malik Books doesn’t have. He says Black-owned booksellers serve an important role.

“Eso Won, Malik Books — we exist because our voice has been silent,” Muhammad said. “The reason we opened is to amplify our voice, to tell our story, to help our community. We’re book activists.”

April Muhammad, the store’s co-owner and Malik’s wife, said bigger booksellers may carry some of the more popular titles — but Black authors are often relegated to a small section of the store.

“When you walk into a bookstore, you should be able to see yourself in all facets.” “When you come into Malik Books, you see yourself everywhere,” said April Muhammad.

So what’s a title that Malik Books exists to sell — a less well-known title that big retailers are less likely to carry? April doesn’t hesitate to answer, walking immediately to a shelf in the center aisle of the small store.

“This book has saved many peoples’ lives,” April said, pulling out a copy of The Message to the Blackman in America by Elijah Muhammad, the founder of The Nation of Islam.

Malik says the bookstore exists to sell a book like PowerNomics by Claud Anderson. The book’s message echoes many of Malik’s feelings about the importance of economic growth in the Black community.

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“Freedom isn’t just being physically free,” he explained. “Financial freedom is liberation. So we need to pool money together” — which, Muhammad argued, means supporting Black-owned businesses.

In a turbulent industry, running Malik Books hasn’t always been easy. Muhammad said he opened the store during a moment when literature about multiculturalism was ascendant. But by the 2000s, many of the same forces that whipsawed independent book-sellers everywhere began battering his store: the rise of Amazon and big-box book-sellers.

But Muhammad said the reckoning over racism that’s followed George Floyd’s murder has been a “catalyst” for new interest in Black authors and books.

“History repeats itself until you get it right,” Malik Muhammad said. “We have to make it right.”

One step to getting it right? Open a book.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).