‘We Are Book Activists’: June 16, Acknowledging the Role of Black-Owned Bookstores in Los Angeles

As a young man, Malik Muhammad believed he would return home to Washington, DC, with his degree from USC to pursue a quiet career in federal government jobs.

Then the books came and shook the foundations of Mohammed. books that challenged their conceptions of black history — “It did not start with slavery alone; that’s what I thought”—and she opened his eyes to the urgency of social problems.

“The books woke me up,” he said. “They elevated me. They changed my consciousness. It made me feel differently about the way I saw myself; I had a degree, but I had no knowledge of myself.”

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 a representation of themselves.”

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 the black community.

that list will soon be reduced by one. Owners of Eso Won Books in Leimert Park announced that it will close its physical store at the end of the year, although they will continue to sell books online. The famed retailer in the rapidly gentrifying Leimert Park neighborhood has hosted talks and book signings by luminaries ranging from former President Barack Obama to journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and 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 carry. He says black-owned booksellers play an important role.

“That Won, Malik Books – we exist because our voice has been silenced,” Muhammad said. “The reason we open is to amplify our voice, to tell our story, to help our community. We are book activists.”

April Muhammad, co-owner of the store and Malik’s wife, said the larger bookstores may have some of the most 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 walk into Malik Books, you see yourself everywhere,” said April Muhammad.

So what is one title that Malik Books exists to sell, a lesser-known title that the big box retailers are less likely to sell? April doesn’t hesitate to respond, immediately walking over to a shelf in the center aisle of the small store.

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

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

“Freedom is not just being physically free,” he explained. “Financial freedom is liberation. So we need to raise money,” which, Muhammad argued, means supporting black-owned businesses.

In a turbulent industry, managing Malik Books hasn’t always been easy. Muhammad said that he opened the shop at a time when the literature on multiculturalism was booming. But in the 2000s, many of the same forces that hit independent booksellers everywhere began to hit his store: the rise of Amazon and the big-box bookstores.

But Muhammad said the reckoning over racism that followed the killing of George Floyd has been a “catalyst” for new interest in black authors and books.

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

One step to get 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 social forces, parental choices, and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).

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