No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?
Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because Negroes don't read, Lewis took five books and one hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X.
In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller's flair to document the life and times of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era.
My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I'm taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I'd say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning.
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About the Author
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is the author of The Book Itch, as well as three Coretta Scott King Award-winning books: No Crystal Stair, Bad News for Outlaws, and Almost to Freedom. She is a former youth services librarian in New Mexico. Visit her online vaundanelson.com.
"This book illuminates the choices, obstacles, and triumphant moments of Nelson's great-uncle Lewis Michaux's path to becoming one of the Civil Rights movement's most influential leaders. The subtitle, A Novel in Documents, Based on the Life and Works of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller, indicates a work of fiction, but Nelson creates a beautifully entertaining and enlightening biography through focused and thorough research and first-person narratives. Short accounts from a variety of voices move the book along quickly and provide a seemingly unbiased picture of a man who mattered to many of the Civil Right movement's elite. Including personal and historical photos adds to the biography feel, and having drawings interspersed creates a sense that the book was written as Michaux's legacy grew. A storytelling quality, as well as short pieces of history on each page, will make this appealing to anyone looking to know more about the Civil Rights era." --Library Media Connection--Journal
Lewis Michaux is not sure where he belongs in the world. As a boy, he is angry and stubborn about the treatment of his people. After floundering for several years, he finally finds a purpose in life. He starts a very small bookstore with only five books. Michaux decides to sell books written by black authors for black people. Before too long, his bookstore becomes the hottest cultural spot in Harlem. Everyone goes to the store to learn and to share ideas. Lewis Michaux's life is invested in the bookstore and the ideas behind it.
No Crystal Stair is told in short, alternative perspectives, photos, FBI reports, and historical documents, creating an eye-pleasing and easy to read format. This eye-opening story starts with Lewis Michaux at the age of nine and ends with his death. His idea that people need to know their past to achieve their future resonates. He touched many lives, witnessed through the various perspectives in the book. During a pivotal period in history, he created a wondrous place. Significant historical figures, including many authors passed, through the bookstore: Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Armstrong. This book will capture readers' interest from the first pages and they will find themselves still thinking about it weeks later.
"Author-librarian Nelson has written a fictionalized but carefully researched life of her great-uncle Lewis Michaux, the celebrated Harlem bookseller. Born in 1895, Michaux started selling books in Harlem in the mid-1930s with a strapping supply of five books. After opening his National Memorial African Bookstore in the late '30s, he built his inventory until, by the early 1970s, it boasted some 225,000 volumes and had become America's premier bookstore specializing in books by and about African Americans. Michaux seems to have known virtually everyone who was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance and, later, the black liberation movement, and, accordingly, Nelson tells his story from multiple points of view. While most of the voices she includes are those of real people familiar with her uncle and his bookstore, some belong to fictional characters who are also the product of research. The resulting work is not only a compelling biography but also a useful addition to the literature of black history and culture. Source notes and an extensive bibliography are appended." --Booklist--Journal
"Opened at the end of the Great Depression, Michaux's National Memorial African Bookstore became a central gathering place for African American writers, artists, intellectuals, and political figures. In this extraordinary, inspiring book, short chapters are written in thirty-six different voices--mostly of Michaux himself and other historical people." --The Horn Book Guide--Journal
"Inspired by Marcus Garvey and the drive to make a difference, Lewis Michaux opened the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem at the end of the Great Depression with an inventory of five books and a strong faith that black people were hungry for knowledge. Over the next thirty-five years, his store became a central gathering place for African American writers, artists, intellectuals, and political figures, including Malcolm X, who frequently gave his speeches in front of the bookstore. But Michaux also sought to reach ordinary citizens, believing that pride and self-knowledge would grow naturally from an understanding of global black history and current events. He didn't just sell books; he surrounded his customers with ideas and provocative discussion. He also drew people in with pithy window signs that used humor and clever rhymes. When Sugar Ray Robinson stopped by in 1958, for example, Michaux communicated his disapproval of the hair-straightening products the boxer used: 'Ray what you put on your head will rub off in your bed. It's what you put in your head that will last 'til you're dead.' Short chapters--some just a paragraph or two--are written in thirty-six different voices, mostly those of Michaux himself, family members, and close associates. Some of the voices are those of fictitious characters based on composites--customers, a newspaper reporter, a street vendor--but most are real people whose statements have been documented by the author in her meticulous research. The voices are interspersed with documents such as articles from the New York Amsterdam News and Jet magazine and with excerpts from Michaux's FBI file. As Michaux's grandniece, the author also had access to family papers and photographs. Given the author's close relationship with the subject, she manages to remain remarkably objective about him, largely due to her honest portrayal of the lifelong conflict between him and many of his family members, most notably his evangelist brother, who didn't approve of his radical politics. Sophisticated expressionistic line drawings illustrate key events. An extraordinary, inspiring book to put into the hands of scholars and skeptics alike. Appended are a family tree, source notes, a bibliography, further reading, and an index of historical characters."--starred, The Horn Book Magazine--Journal
"This well-documented biographical novel presents the life and work of a man whose Harlem bookstore became an intellectual, literary haven for African Americans from 1939 until 1975. Through alternating voices of actual family members, acquaintances, journalists, and the subject himself, Michaux's independent spirit, determination, and perseverance are revealed. Despite family pressure to conform to a religious life, he was restless, controversial, and questioning. Influenced by the nationalism of Marcus Garvey and the intellect of Frederick Douglass, he believed that black people needed to educate themselves as to who they were in order to improve their lives. He opened the National Memorial African Bookstore with 'five books, a building, and one hundred dollars.' He accumulated works by black writers and talked to customers and passersby about cultural awareness and self-improvement. His bookstore attracted Harlem residents; civil-rights activists, including Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali; and political attention. But in 1968, this renowned Harlem landmark fell victim to a new state office building complex. Michaux moved his bookstore once, but facing age and another forced move in 1974, he sold his massive collection. Black-and-white photos add depth to the fictionalized biography. Detailed source and bibliographic notes depict the research process, while the text reflects Nelson's skill of blending fact and fiction. Using extensive interviews, magazine and newspaper articles, church publications, books, and FBI files (tracking Michaux's political activities), Nelson recounts her great-uncle's enterprising and unflinching efforts to enrich and empower fellow African Americans. The storytelling format, candid perspectives, supplemental images, and historic connections bring to life an unheralded individualist whose story will engage readers."--starred, School Library Journal--Journal
"Lewis Michaux provided a venue for his fellow African-Americans to have access to their own history and philosophy at a time when the very idea was revolutionary. Michaux's family despaired of him, as he engaged in petty crime and was obviously headed in the wrong direction. He began to read, however, and discovered a connection to the writings of Marcus Garvey and others, and he determined that knowledge of black thinkers and writers was the way to freedom and dignity. With an inventory of five books, he started his National Memorial African Bookstore as 'the home of proper propaganda' and built it into a Harlem landmark, where he encouraged his neighbors to read, discuss and learn, whether or not they could afford to buy. His clients included Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. Nelson, Michaux's great-niece, makes use of an exhaustive collection of interviews, articles, books, transcripts and FBI files, filling in the gaps with 'informed speculation.' Brief entries arranged in mostly chronological order read seamlessly so that fact and fiction meld in a cohesive whole. Michaux's voice blends with those of the people in his life, providing a full portrait of a remarkable man. Copious illustrations in the form of photographs, copies of appropriate ephemera and Christie's powerfully emotional free-form line drawings add depth and focus. A stirring and thought-provoking account of an unsung figure in 20th-century American history."--starred, Kirkus Reviews--Journal
"Nelson and Christie, the team behind Bad News for Outlaws, blend photographs, original artwork, and archival materials with fictionalized first-person narratives to tell the story of Nelson's great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who opened a Harlem bookstore that served as a meeting place and symbol of black empowerment for 35 years. Tracing Lewis's roots to a childhood filled with questioning and rebellion, Nelson alternates between Lewis's voice and those of his parents, brothers, and others--characters who, like Lewis, spring to life on page. After rejecting a life in service of the church, Lewis leaves Virginia for Harlem, where in 1939 he opens the National Memorial African Bookstore, 'by and about black people, ' earning the nickname 'the Professor.' The narrative expands to include the voices of Harlem business owners, residents, and store visitors over the decades, their stories and perspectives revealing how one man's vision helped galvanize his community. Nelson and Christie deliver an engrossing blend of history, art, and storytelling in this deeply moving tribute to a singular individual."--starred, Publishers Weekly--Journal