Welcome back to school! My favorite thing about September (besides back-to-school clothes and desk supplies, of course!), is getting ready to learn new stuff. My goal for the new school year is to make every other book I read one that I can learn something new from. My first one is No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. The subtitle is really long: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. Usually when I encounter something with a subtitle that long I avoid it like the plague because I think the book is going to be just as longwinded as the title. That is so not the case with this book, though. I read it in one sitting and I wish it had been a lot longer. Lewis Michaux was Nelson’s great-uncle and he was quietly involved in the Civil Rights Movement with his education of the people of Harlem.
Nelson follows her great-uncle’s life from his childhood in Newport News, Virginia, where he is restless and gets in trouble with the law for stealing, to his move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he runs a gambling house until his brother Norris is shot during an altercation and the establishment is raided by the police. Lewis subsequently gets into an argument with a police officer, which ends with the officer hitting his face with a nightstick, which leads Lewis to lose an eye and having it replaced with a glass one. After admiring his other brother, Lightfoot, for establishing his own ministry, Lewis is inspired to follow his own passion, which is to start a bookstore stocked with books by African-American authors. Lewis goes to New York City to open his store in Harlem. He’s able to get the funding to open it, but is met with a lot of skepticism, such as from the banker who says “Negroes don’t read” (p.42). Lewis doesn’t listen to this and opens The National Memorial African Bookstore in 1940. What follows is an account of Lewis’ life and career revolving around a commitment to providing the citizens of Harlem with a place to read and share ideas. Lewis befriends some big names in the Civil Rights Movement, like Malcolm X, but he spends an equal amount of time with teenagers in his neighborhood. My favorite “character” is a kid named Snooze, who declares that he absolutely does not read until Lewis presses a book of poems by Langston Hughes into his hand; after that Snooze is in the shop, reading constantly. He later becomes a youth program director at a community center.
I love the way this book is set up; there are several narrators, from Lewis’ family members to his customers at the store. The combination of the style and the great photographs really made me feel like I was a customer at the bookstore. At the end there are reflections from regular customers, like the poet Nikki Giovanni and Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, which I really liked. I also loved the illustrations by R. Gregory Christie. No Crystal Stair, which takes its title from a Langston Hughes poem, took Nelson fifteen years to complete. Knowing that this was a labor of love made me appreciate it even more.