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Thursday, January 17, 2013

No Crystal Stair, written by Yaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Carolrhoda lab, 2012. $22.50 ages 12 and up


"Sometimes  a man gets pushed,
pushed too hard. Too far.

Until the neglected and the rejected
are accepted and respected, there's
gonna be no damn peace...nowhere!

Only a tree will stand still while
it's being chopped down."

I think that I would have loved to visit Lewis Michaux's book store in Harlem and to learn from the man who gained admiration from so many. He did not seem destined to be a bookseller; but, when someone said no, Lewis found a way to battle the odds:

"Michaux's dumber than he looks if the thinks one little bookstore is going to change the Negro condition. The man has no experience in the book business. I suspect he hasn't had much education. A store like that that won't last six months in Harlem. Michaux would lose his shirt and our five hundred dollars. I must admit, he had a good line - even had me laughing a couple of times, but I still sent him packing for his own good - and the bank's.
Now if he wanted to open a place to sell fried chicken or chitterlings, we could do business. Negroes eat up that kind of stuff."

From all accounts, Lewis Michaux was a learned man who had charm and charisma, while also being smart and aware of social and political issues. To tell his story, his great-niece Vaunda Michaux Nelson did her research over a period of fifteen years in order to do justice to his legacy and the bookstore that provided a place for African Americans to learn about themselves and those who came before them. It started as a family history, no thought of a book-to-be. Then, she decided that she would write a biography, but that changed into what Vaunda Nelson's husband called 'documentary fiction'. And, that is just what you will have in your hands when you buy or borrow it.

 It is an amazing collection of voices that invite a close look at the man who began life in Virginia and whose path led him to Harlem, where he opened his bookstore in hopes of spreading his love of reading to other African Americans. Each of the voices is strong and unique, none stronger than Lewis himself:

"I listen to everybody
but I dont' hear
everybody. It's all right
to listen, but you don't hear
everybody because if you do,
you cease to be yourself
and become the
fellow you hear.
It's an intelligent thing to
do, to entertain the man
who's trying to tell you
something, but never
lose your individuality."

He is a brilliant character...and one I have come to love. R. Gregory Christie's thoughtful and telling images, the archival primary source photos, posters, and announcements, and the winning design hold our attention and push us to always want to know more. The back matter is filled with the impeccable research done to create this award winning book.

His son Edward Jr., who bas born when his father was sixty is most eloquent in speaking to his legacy:

"You used to talk to me about the smell of books. I remember I didn't get it at first. But you taught me...helped me to smell the trees in the paper, the words in the ink, the history in the words...helped me to smell the knowing. Now, the smell of knowing overwhelms me. And there's something else beneath it. Another smell. Your aftershave. Old Spice.

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