No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Carolrhoda, 2012. 188 pgs. Young Adult
Hard to determine the exact best audience for this fine book, a fiction/nonfiction mix about a young black man who started life out as a petty thief, went on to work for his brother's Church ministry, and eventually opened a bookstore in Harlem which carried only books written by or about blacks. Lewis Michaux's vision of the importance of educating black people about their own history and culture led him to establish The National Memorial Bookstore with "five books, a building, and a hundred bucks." From that unpromising beginning Lewis parlayed his business into a store containing hundreds of thousands of books which became, if not the heart and soul, at least the brains of Harlem--poets, civil rights' leaders, kids from the neighborhood, political leaders, all flocked to the store where if you couldn't afford to buy a book, Lewis had a room in the back where you could read whatever you wanted for as long as you wanted. More than just the story of the Harlem bookstore, No Crystal Stair . . . is the story of Ms. Nelson's family. Lewis was her great uncle, and the story of his life, juxtaposed with those of his two brothers, one a nationally-known preacher and one a gambling man who later settled down to a factory job to support his family. Names to conjure with from the Civil Rights movement are here: Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, along with literary figures--Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin. The difficulty with finding an audience for this volume lies primarily with "kids nowadays" not knowing much about what transpired between the Emancipation Proclamation and now, and where black citizens had to come from and how they got to where we are now--far from perfect, but exponentially better. This is a fine book of historical fiction with lots of history included. An excellent street-level view of the history of race relations in the United States.