No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illus. by R. Gregory Christie
Middle School, High School Carolrhoda Lab 188 pp.
2/12 978-0-7613-6169-5 $17.95
e-book ed. 978-0-7613-8727-5 $12.95
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.
From the March/April 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.