Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, artwork by R. Gregory Christie
Published in 2012 by Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books
Source: Public Library
I think there’s been a war on independent bookstores. It’s a crime because books are more than just books in the African American community. Literacy and education were once the hopes for getting away from slavery, out of the ghetto, into power. Bookstores have been cultural crossroads, information centers. The bookstore is where we meet, where we talk. In the sixties, in Harlem, at 125th Street and Seventh, it was Lewis Michaux’s bookstore. –Poet Nikki Giovanni
No Crystal Stair is a celebration, a celebration of the written word and one man’s dedication to it. As avid readers, we know how life-changing and earth-shattering the affect that reading can have on our lives. In Harlem during the 1930s, Lewis Michaux asked a banker for a $500 loan but was turned down. According to the banker, “black people don’t read”. Determined, Michaux started his bookstore with five books and a cart. He would walk up and down the street, shouting about the books he was selling. Over three decades, those five books turned into more than 200,000 at Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore. The bookstore became a place for people to meet, talk, and educate themselves. Through the years, famous people were spotted browsing through the store like Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and others. Told through interviews, photos, and documents, No Crystal Stair is the fictional account of the life of Lewis Michaux.
When it comes to telling you how I feel about this book, I’m almost speechless. If it wasn’t for the author deciding to spent years writing Michaux’s story, I probably wouldn’t have ever heard of this man and his influential bookstore.
We are in a time where indie bookstores are closing all over the country and it’s becoming harder to find a neighborhood bookish spot to patron. It was a similar atmosphere in 1930s Harlem when Michaux got the idea of starting his bookstore. Though at the time, there was a huge population in Harlem, there wasn’t a bookstore (or any mention of one in the book). Michaux believed that for people to understand the world around them, reading was the answer. He went up against so many people who didn’t believe in the power of reading or that Michaux would make any money. And at first, they were right. For the first several years, he didn’t make any money. He washed windows and did odd jobs around the neighborhood.
Finally, business finally picked up and people came in droves to buy books. If customers couldn’t afford a book, they were free to read it in the back. To Michaux, knowledge was power and it was important for everyone to have the opportunity to read books by and about people that looked just like them.
There are details missing about Michaux’s beginnings like what year he was born in or exactly when was his bookstore started, so Nelson turned this biography into a fictional account. But she did give readers photos and newspaper clippings from that time along with transcripts from interviews with people who knew Michaux best.
I’m so grateful that Nelson, who is the great-niece of Michaux, decided to write her great-uncle’s story. I’m also grateful to the publisher, Carolrhoda Lab, for taking a chance on this subject and publishing No Crystal Stair. If you like reading about books, or always dreamed of owning your own bookstore, this is the book for you. My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.