No Crystal Stair

A Novel in Documents, Based on the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
No Crystal Stair: A Novel in Documents, Based on the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. illus. by R. Gregory Christie. 192p. photos. reprods. bibliog. further reading. index. notes. Web sites. Carolrhoda Lab. Feb. 2012. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-6169-5; ebook $12.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-8727-5. LC 2011021251.
RedReviewStarGr 7 Up—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.—Gerry Larson, formerly at Durham School of the Arts, NC
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. Reading list. Bib., ind.
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. kathleen t. horning

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