February 16, 2020
Happy Black History Month! Today’s book rec is No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Michaux Nelson. Lewis Michaux opened the African National Memorial Bookstore on Seventh Avenue up in Harlem in 1932 with just five books to sell. The store closed in 1974 due to the city authorities pulling shenanigans with the store’s location, forcing them to move. In those 42 years, Michaux transformed his bookstore into a cultural landmark. It housed only books by and about Black people and Africans, as well as exhibiting their art. Michaux had been discouraged from opening the store because it was common knowledge that Black people didn’t read, but Michaux, inspired by Marcus Garvey, knew that was false. It served as a meeting and discussion place for thousands of people over the years, including Kwame Nkrumah and, of course, Malcolm X, whom he considered a close personal friend. He called the store “the House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda,” and he was feared to be a radical. He was really just passionate about spreading knowledge: if someone couldn’t pay, they could sit and read and borrow books as if it were a library. Michaux was widely regarded as an icon in his field, an expert and philosopher who knew just what you should read, and there’s no telling how much he changed New York and American culture by bringing knowledge and art and promoting upcoming writers on such a huge scale to Harlem and from there, everywhere. His influence stretches outwards like ripples on a pond. This book is a novelization of his story written by his niece, and the entire time I was reading it I was thinking “This man lived the dream.” The title comes from a Langston Hughes poem that particularly inspired Michaux.