Behind the scenes at Bill Clinton’s visit to
Eso Won Books:
The Wrath of the Autograph seekers
As business owners, we are often ecstatic when our
ships come in—the big account, the big event, the big client. But, Eso
Won Books found out recently what Mama used to say: “Be careful what
you ask for.”
It was a happy day when Eso Won Books owners
James Fugate and Tom Hamilton received the call from Random House asking
if June 26 would be a good day to have a book signing. “As she calmly
put it, ‘for one of our authors,’” Fugate said, knowing full well this
was a big one—the coveted Bill Clinton book signing for his book “My
Life” that was about to be released.
For this honor, Eso Won was not just picked out of
the hat. Hamilton and Fugate had to draft a proposal for how they would
handle the Clinton signing and why it would best be staged at their
south west Los Angeles store. Ultimately it was Bill Clinton’s staff
that decided to host it at Eso Won, which confirms what many believed:
Clinton was making a statement. He wanted Black owned businesses to get
some of the glory. After all, he had already had his first signing at
Hue-man Books in Harlem, the city where he insisted on having his
Although he was on his way to the Chicago Book
Convention the night of the call, Fugate and his partner began making
plans immediately. It was important that they contract with black owned
businesses, so they contacted Ron Brown and his security agency because
he had helped them organize numerous other book signings in the past.
They contacted esteemed photographer Howard Bingham to shoot the event,
which was appropriate since he is also a featured author and he has
photographed Muhammad Ali and many other dignitaries all over the
world. Instead of a caterer, though, staff prepared the food that the
secret service, security and staff swollen to 25 for the day, used to
keep themselves energized.
He contacted the major black press with the
specific details as laid out in the Random House generated press
release, but only the Sentinel ran a blurb about the fact that the event
was about to happen. KJLH’s Jacquie Stephens ran a telephone interview
with Fugate with the details, however.
The preparations were made. The stage was set.
And when the mass media made the announcement that Bill Clinton would
be at Eso Won, the phones rang incessantly. From the interview with
NPR, to the article in the Los Angeles Times, all the TV news
organizations ran the story, the word was out. Only problem is, white
fans of Clinton called and learned of the Random House plan to provide
tickets to the event (which was in fact pre-selling the books since the
ticket would be exchanged for the book.) Since black folk live here,
many mistakenly assumed they would buy their books at Walmart or Costco
for the discount, get in line extra early and take their chances.
“From day one, we took 800 calls a day,” said
Fugate. “I think the majority of people knew the Will Call system we were
using. We posted the information at
www.esowonbooks.com and our voicemail featured a very detailed
explanation of the Will Call System, and was recorded by actress CCH
But things were not going to go according to
plan. In fact, by mid week of the signing the plan was changed by
Clinton’s office and Eso Won was asked to stop pre-selling tickets, and
allow patrons to call in the day of the event only, to gain access.
Although fans were discouraged from spending the night outside, some
camped out across the street anyway, and apparently did not get word of
the system, which was tantamount to calling a radio station you had to redial and redial
to get through. Someone started a sign in sheet but it was unofficial,
and may have caused more consternation. At some point when it was
realized that white people were being allowed inside, some in the crowd
grew angry and began chanting to boycott Eso Won, mistakenly thinking
there was some kind of conspiracy. To make matters worse, the local
stores began towing cars where people had parked all up and down La
Brea, (exacerbated perhaps by an announcement had been made in the L.A.
Times that customers could park in the Ralph’s and other lots, but an
errata was published after the fact.)
Things were a mess and of course, the news
cameras were there to capture the frustration.
A friend excitedly alerted me early Saturday
morning. “Girl, turn on the news. Clinton is coming to Eso Won and my
sister who is down there called me from her cell and says it is a zoo.” By the time I rolled
down LA Brea to get a picture of the crowds everything was organized and
patient, perhaps because the customers started organizing themselves.
“I saw a security guard with the sign in sheet and
he was yelling off names. I was wondering where did he get this from? I
thought that was pretty impressive but then I found out it was
unofficial,” said Fugate.
The frustration grew as 90% of the
thousands that were there did not have tickets. The police went out there to line them up in single file along
the side of the mall and the line stretched around the block. Once
started, it went very fast. Inside, things were going very smoothly.
Clinton reportedly hugged and shook hands and was very accommodating to
the patrons. But outside, the anger, heat and indignation at a point
erupted into chants of “Boycott Eso Won.”
All of that negativity saddened Fugate and
his staff, but they tried to remain calm about the volatile situation.
“We have had to rise to many big occasions before with the book signings of
Johnnie Cochran and Patti Labelle…the list goes on. We used Ron Brown on
occasion before when the publisher asked for security and we have never
had a physical altercation. The staff is well strained and expert at
crowd control. There are always confrontations, always people who get
upset, but we have always handled things without them turning into a
When asked if perhaps black people felt a sense of
ownership since Eso Won is the premier black book store in Southern
California, James said “That may be. But I saw many who clearly had
books they obviously bought from Walmart and Costco yelling,
screaming “But James you know me!” That is not support.’
But overall, the arrival of Clinton brought cheers
and some were happy with just a glimpse of him strolling inside, waving.
Almost 2000 left happy, with books signed by the beloved former
Eso Won had to beef up its staff and many
volunteered for the day’s event, and for that he was thankful he could
get volunteers. “We had 25 people, volunteering and helping that day,
more than enough requests to volunteer…everybody wanted to work that day. We
could have used people before hand. A few days swamped with everything
that had to be done…would have been more helpful.”
"But when the president’s office called and asked us
to stop selling pre tickets and change to a new system, they threw a
monkey wrench into out plans.
"Since the books were now going to be sold by phone
on the day of the event, that caused a lot of problems. About 100 minutes
after the phones were opened, they were sold out. People couldn’t get
through and they accused us of not even answering the phones.
“I didn’t think it would end up being as
negative in many people’s minds,” lamented Fugate. “People who got
books liked it and those who couldn’t get in felt there were at
least a hundred different ways to handle things. President Clinton
signed almost 2000 books in 5 and a half hours. He ended up leaving
before 200 people got their books signed. His staff felt that he had
already signed enough and they thought we had oversold books and that we
were abusing Clinton.
“That meant I had to go outside and play the bad
guy, to let people know that he would be leaving. Many understood,
but there were some…,” he said, his voice trailing. He recounted
the story about one lady who cried for 3 or 4 hours-- a little Asian
lady—who said she had slept across the street and some of her
party did get in but she didn’t, and she was just crying.”
“In retrospect we should have had more security
than we had because we had between 3 and 7 thousand people here. While
the secret service and LAPD wanted more, I didn’t think it was necessary
but they were right. With 7000 people that creates a near riot situation
and that is what I was afraid of all along. If we had had more people,
the lines would have moved a bit faster. Some in the front of the line
lent a hand and helped out. We learned a lot from it.”
“It was sad in a way to me.. These are adults and
the obsession level in getting a signature by someone is sort of sad when
you invest all of this energy in a signature….
"I was really surprised at Cliff and Janine (KJLH
Morning Team). I couldn’t believe that Cliff and Janine went on the air
saying no one they knew got in and that perhaps a petition should be
circulated to Random House to keep us from getting the book signings we
"But on the good side, CCH Pounder was a great help
and Councilman Ludlow’s office was helpful. So many pulled together to
help the day along.
With “all eyez” on Eso Won, was it worth it? “It
always helps to get a lot of attention; it helps to put a store on the
map." But, did all the attention translate into more business for
the book store? “Not really. Summer is really slow. The book
sale itself was great, but the week after it’s been business as
For more stories:
For Erin Aubrey Kaplan’s Story int he L.A. Weekly.
Eso Won Books:
www.EsoWon.com (323) 294-0324
Top left Photo: Tracee Hall
Top Right Photo:
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