Thursday, March 7, 2019

THE BOOK ITCH: Freedom, Truth & Harlem's Greatest Bookstore

Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

(Carolrhoda Books, 2015)

I love this book! This is the true story of Harlem’s National Memorial African Bookstore, its owner, Lewis Michaux and his young son, told from the son’s point of view. In the broader sense, it’s about feeding your brain and following your dream.

For Lewis Michaux, he wanted to open a bookstore in Harlem, but a banker refused his loan application. “Black people don’t read.”

And so, while saving his money, Michaux begins with five books and a pushcart. “Don’t get took!” he’d yell. “Read a book!”

Eventually he opens the bookstore, adorning it with African flags and all sorts of signs like, “THE HOUSE OF COMMON SENSE AND HOME OF PROPER PROPAGANDA.” People come, people read. The boy is awestruck in meeting famous patrons like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. A platform out front allows Michaux, Malcolm X and others to speak their truth.

As I read, my mind raced, planning another trip to New York, with this bookstore at the top of my must-see list. Sadly, I learned in Lewis Michaux’s biography at the back of the book that the store closed in 1975, after relocating once and then receiving eviction papers. On the same day I read this book, I walked in my neighborhood and happened upon a newly shuttered bookstore. Alas, book browsing havens are becoming more and more scarce.

The importance of the National Memorial African Bookstore should be readily apparent. What I also love about this story is how it shows the bond between a father and son and how this man, Lewis Michaux, is such a passionate advocate for literacy and knowledge. One passage particularly resonates today:
Me and my dad talk about important things.
Things like truth and what it means to be free.
Dad says books can help you. Not every book
is true, he says, but the more you read, the easier
it is to figure out for yourself what is true.

Christie’s illustrations are gorgeous, with warm-colored backgrounds and darker tones in the foreground. There’s an endearing image of Michaux falling asleep in his bookstore and a tasteful, powerful painting foreshadowing the news of Malcolm X’s fate.

Three days after first reading this book, I still feel a sense of melancholy that the place no longer exists.

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