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These Literary Spaces Offer More Than Just Books. They Create Safe Space And Community

A woman with long braids in a pony tail wearing a light pink sweater with a red & black satchel around her back faces a large black bookcase full of books. Her back is to the camera.
Octavia's Bookshelf in Pasadena on March 7, 2023.
(Alexis Hunley
for LAist)
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Shaqueal Adkins has always loved books. She’s collected them for herself, donated them to incarcerated women, sold them to the public and has just generally spread the gospel of literature to anyone who’ll listen in her community.

Now, she’s about to take a leap of faith.

Born and raised in Watts, this self-proclaimed “book slinger” and “hood librarian” plans to open her first brick-and-mortar book shop in her neighborhood this summer.

Our Watts Bookshop currently lives online — and on Instagram — but it's her dream to create a space for people not just to buy books but to enjoy everything about them.

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“I’m very community-based. I just feel like bringing literacy back to the ‘hood,” Adkins said. “We shouldn’t have to leave our location to go to freakin’ bookstores. We have to create our own spaces.”

A dark skinned Black woman stands in front of books.
Shaqueal Adkins is the owner of Our Watts Bookshop. She plans to open up a physical store this summer.
(Courtesy Shaqueal Adkins )

Where To Get Your Lit... In Spaces Owned By Black Women

Adkins envisions her bookstore being a warm place that people will find familiar. She wants it to be accessible to people; a gathering space — kinda like home. “I want people from our city on the wall,” Adkins said. “I want FloJo on the wall. I want you to come in and I want you to be like ‘oh shit. That’s D’Angelo playing?’ I want my kids to be running up through there too. I want a den-like situation like Moesha. We can do that.”

More than books

Since 2019, several Black women have founded literary spaces in Los Angeles that hold more than just books; they offer places where people can gather and find community. There’s Salt Eaters in Inglewood, Reparations Club near West Adams, the Radical Hood Library — home to the Noname Book Club — near Jefferson Park. Last month Octavia’s Bookshelf opened in Pasadena, named for beloved science fiction author Octavia Butler.

These spaces let you know exactly what they are. As soon as you step into Reparations Club or Salt Eaters, for example, you see altars of Black maternal figures from the owners’ lives as well as books and art that shine a light on Black culture.

“The intention was to have a space that centers on Black people in L.A.: Black stories, Black narratives, that is a start," said Jazzi McGilbert, founder of Reparations Club. “I think a lot of other places are made with other intentions that don’t align with the community. It’s more business first. Our goal is to be people first. We think of ourselves as the neighbors over here.”

A portrait of a Black woman with dreadlocks in a ponytail wearing a bright pink and orange sweater. She leans on a yellow and orange counter, holding one hand against her chin. There's a lap top the right and a payment iPad to the left. Behind her there's an archway framing her and a wooden checkered wall with tote bags hanging and a flowery curtain on the right.
Jazzi McGilbert, owner of Reparation's Club in Los Angeles.
(Alexis Hunley

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Filling a void

Many of these spaces have opened up during a time of social tension and civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd Jr., Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. Angelenos from all backgrounds wanted to delve into Black literature after the racial reckoning that occurred, and support Black-owned businesses.

These spaces fill a void, too: L.A. recently lost one of its most popular bookstores that spotlighted Black authors and hosted several events, most notably an interview with former president Barack Obama. Eso Won in Leimert Park closed its doors late last year, after the founders retired. Eso Won continues to sell online but the gathering space is gone.

“My childhood, my understanding of Black literature, like in L.A., starts in Eso Won Books,” Salt Eaters founder Asha Grant said. “I think that they served as a huge catalyst and inspiration for a lot of us to even feel like we could do something like this in our own neighborhoods. That spirit of Black entrepreneurship and dedication to Black literature has not died. It's only evolved more or like sort of expanded, which I think is a beautiful thing.”

A portrait of a Black woman wearing a long sleeve black blouse, a brown bandana wrapped around her head, and red nails. She holds her hands crossed below her chin, elbows resting on a wooden table with a Square payment iPad. Behind her there's a wooden shelf with books, an LGBTQIA flag, framed photos and a wooden letters that read "Salt Eaters."
Asha Grant, owner of The Salt Eaters Bookstore in Inglewood.
(Alexis Hunley

For Fatimah Warner, the founder of the Radical Hood Library, she believes that there needs to be some type of infrastructure in communities that is sustainable.

“[Eso Won] was literally a historic Black staple to Los Angeles as a Black bookstore,” Warner said. “Those spaces carry so much of a legacy to still continue even if the owners necessarily can’t do it themselves. I think the more, the merrier. I still think we need as many Black spaces as we can get."

A diptych: On the left, A vertical portrait of a Black woman with an long curly hair who is leaning against the edge of a green couch next to a window. She wears a dark blue buttoned up knitted cardigan with yellow stars. She is lit by window light and smiles at the camera. On the right, a tight frame of many books on a four-tier bookshelf. There's a paper sign taped in the middle that reads "Prison Chapter Books. Do not touch."
Fatimah Warner, founder of the Noname Book Club.
(Alexis Hunley

A demand for Black-owned bookstores

The first documented Black-owned bookstore was established by abolitionist David Ruggles in 1834. According to Joshua Clark Davis, an associate professor of U.S. history at the University of Baltimore, Black-owned bookstores gained prominence in the 1960s and 70s because of their ability to offer a radical political space in Black communities during the Black Power Movement. The oldest standing Black-owned bookstore in the country is Marcus Books in Oakland, which started up in 1960.

There was a boom in the number of independent booksellers during this period but they soon came under the focus of the FBI, which was trying to root out what then-director J. Edgar Hoover considered to be “extremists” in the Black Power Movement. Davis wrote in The Atlantic that Hoover wanted his agents to try and persuade Black citizens to spy on these places.

The number of Black-owned bookstores fell in the 1970s, increased again in the 90s, only to fall again from 2000 to 2010. According to the African American Literature Book Club, there are an estimated 150 Black-owned bookstores in the U.S., which represents about 6% of all independent booksellers nationwide. About 16 of them are located across California.

Creating spaces with intention

These new spaces in Los Angeles are part of a resurgence of Black-run literary spaces. But there’s something that makes these smaller women-owned spaces unique — all of the women involved have intentionally created safe community spaces for Black people in L.A.

“I think that especially in a city like L.A., which I don't think represents Black women in the ways we need very specifically, I think that we have done just what Black women do period, which is create the spaces that we need for ourselves,” Grant said.

Before founding Salt Eaters, Grant ran the L.A. chapter of the Free Black Women’s Library.

A dyptich: On the left, a vertical photo of a painting of a Black woman with an Afro, pink earrings, and a bright yellow jacket against a black background. The painting hangs on a wooden checkered wall. Below the painting there are various vertically stacked books. On the right, a vertical photo of various vintage photos including a portrait of a Black woman, a small black child cuddling with a caretaker, and family get togethers. The photos are displayed vertically along differently patterned quilt like structures.
Pictures of Jazzi McGilbert's family members throughout Reparation's Club bring the spirit of family and community into the space.
(Alexis Hunley

Walk into many of these places and you are likely to see a dedication to the women in the owners’ lives.

For instance, at Reparations Club there’s a mirror with pictures of Jazzi McGilbert’s mother and her family pinned to it. McGilbert said her late mother inspired her to start the bookstore.

Similarly, as soon as you step into Salt Eaters in Inglewood, you automatically feel at home. One of the first items you see is an altar honoring owner Asha Grant’s grandmother, the first person to take her to get her a library card.

Grant said that her grandmother was the person who read her chapter books at night. “She was a huge influence on almost everything that I am today,” Grant said. “I would not have Salt Eaters without her.”

A wide photo of the interior of the bookstore. The walls at the far end of the store are wooden and checkered. The floor has a black, yellow and black checkered pattern. In the foreground to the right of frame there are many colorful books on the display. On the left there are more shelves with books. A customer stands at the payment counter. And on the left of frame three Black women chat.
Customers come from all around the city to visit Reparations Club.
(Alexis Hunley
A bald man with medium tone skin wearing a black jacket and pants and glasses looks down at a book he's holding. On the left of frame there are white shelves filled with colorful books. Behind the man there's a wooden Chuch-pew-like bench, lamps, and a glass tables. The wall is lavender with pink and black patterns.
Customers peruse an array of books following a March 11, 2023 event at The Salt Eaters Bookstore.
(Alexis Hunley

At Salt Eaters, there’s R&B softly playing in the background, a quilt, a church pew and a stack of Ebony and Jet magazines on a table. On one wall, you’ll see a huge painting of Latasha Harlins, the teenager who was fatally shot in 1991 in a convenience store by the Korean-American owner. That incident — and the light sentence that followed — helped spur the 1992 L.A. Uprisings. On another wall there’s a huge tapestry of resident badass, blaxploitation actress Pam Grier.

“I think there's a certain level of un-apologeticness that the tapestry offers,” Grant said. “I think that there's space for us to, you know, have a church pew and also have a Black woman who’s armed at the front of the store. It feels like she's like our security.”

A diptych: On the left a vertical portrait of Black woman with long dreadlocks in a high ponytail wearing a long grey sweater and black pants. Her hands are in her sweater pockets and she stands outside in the sun at the entrance of a storefront. To the left a square photo of a book on display. The cover is of a Black woman wearing mustard green dress sitting in front of a framed painting. The tile of the book reads "A Woman of Endurance" "A Novel" "Dahlma LLanos-Figueroa"
Nikki High, owner of Octavia's Bookshelf in Pasadena.
(Alexis Hunley

At Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena, owner Nikki High said she wants her shop to be a safe space for curious minded people. The space is small and intimate with two bookshelves, plants and tables that are full of books. There’s a quote by Lucille Clifton on the wall.

I want young Black kids and adults to come in here and feel represented every single day, not just during Black History Month. Like they can come in here and they know that they're gonna find their next favorite book.
— Nikki High, owner, Octavia's Bookshelf

At Radical Hood Library, founded by Chicago rapper Fatimah Warner, known to many as Noname, everyone has a piece of ownership in the space; it is a worker’s cooperative.

“I’m a musician, and I do a bunch of other shit,” Warner said, "And I knew I was never going to be in a place where I could fully commit myself. I didn’t want to see the library closed because I’m removed from the program or I no longer want to do it.”

Inside, there’s a theme around global Black solidarity.

“When you get further into the space and you’re actually looking at titles you’re like, oh this is very leftist and very Black,” Warner said. “These aren't subject matters that people typically want to read about, but all of a sudden, there's all this interest and there's so many writers writing about abolition. I think we're living in chaotic times and people are searching for answers,” Warner said.

A brightly lit room with a big window behind a large green couch. In front of the couch there's a wooden table and dark blue stools. To the left of frame there's a large wooden bookcase full of books.
Bookclub HQ in Los Angeles.
(Alexis Hunley

There’s a portrait of a mom holding a baby and a rifle right behind her.

There’s a section for kids called the Little Homie section.

It’s a radical, socialist and queer space where employees and community members have discussions about abolition, colonialism, imperialism and mass incarceration. There are pictures of rebellions and artwork from incarcerated people. The library gives books to people inside of prisons. Everyone has a sense of ownership in the space. There are mutual aid days. They have a Patreon where people can get exclusive access to events.

A portrait of a Black woman with an Afro who is leaning against the edge of a green couch next to a large window. She wears a black shirt, light brown jacket, and a black and brown patterned scarf around her neck. She is lit by window light and smiles at the camera.
Natalie Matos of Noname Book Club. March 11, 2023.
(Alexis Hunley

“We want people to feel like they are invested in the space,” said Natalie Matos, the project manager for Radical Hood Library.

“I think a lot of times Black women see a need and then we just respond to it,” Warner added. “I think, you know, all of us who have our different spaces, were from different backgrounds, different communities. I'm from Chicago, but I think ultimately, like, we want to see black people free in whatever ways possible. We need space where we can gather and have the necessary community conversations. So I can't speak for everybody why they started theirs but I do feel like, at the core of us, we know we need a space.”

5 Black-owned lit spaces to check out

Five Black-Owned Lit Spaces To Check Out
  • Reparations Club

    Founder: Jazzi McGilbert

    3054 S. Victoria Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90016

    (323) 591-0012

  • What you'll find: LGBTQ authors, Young Adult, romance titles, Black art books, incense, cookbooks and books on film. It's also a space for birthday parties, game nights, rent parties, karaoke parties and conversation circles.

  • Octavia’s Bookshelf 

    Founder: Nikki High

    1361 N. Hill Ave., Pasadena, CA 91104

    (626) 421-6222

  • What you'll find: The store is an homage to award-winning sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. Nikki High says she plans to host author signings, readings, children’s story hours and more.

  • The Salt Eaters Bookshop 

    Founder: Asha Grant

    302 E. Queen St., Inglewood, CA 90301

  • What you'll find: Poetry talks, Black queer speed dating and meditation sessions. Events are posted on Instagram. Salt Eaters also hosts rent parties to keep the Black feminist bookshop alive.

  • Our Watts Bookshop 

    Founder: Shaqueal Adkins

    Online and pop-up locations; info at

  • What you'll find: Adkins has had pop up shops in Watts, more frequently in 2022. She said she tries to remain local and affordable. They are donation-based sales and typically take place on the weekends before 2 p.m.

  • Radical Hood Library 

    Founder: Fatimah Nyeema Warner

    2304 W. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angeles, CA

  • What you'll find: Film screenings, open mics for Black History Month, poetry nights, teachings, packing books for incarcerated people and letter-writing days. One of their big events of the year is a Black radical book fair this summer for Black August.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

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