Vale Una Mulzac, radical bibliophile

The weekend Times published an obituary of Una Mulzac, founder of Liberation Bookstore, the Harlem bookstore that became a well-known and well-loved for selling books about African American identity and racial justice.

Mulzac opened the store in 1967 after returning from Guyana, where she participated in that country’s struggle for independence from Great Britain. It became a landmark, and closed in 2007, when Ms. Mulzac’s health deteriorated and she could no longer run it. Via the Times:

Her bookstore, born at a time when Harlem was ravaged by crime and heroin, became a neighborhood landmark like the Apollo or Sylvia’s restaurant and endured into the era of Starbucks and Old Navy. People came from all over Harlem and beyond to buy books there, whether by well-known authors like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison or by little-known conspiracy theorists.

The store harked back to an earlier generation of politicized Harlem bookstores, particularly Lewis H. Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore, a mainstay on West 125th Street for 42 years, until 1974. Mr. Michaux proudly advertised it as the “House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.”

“Anyone interested in race has to come here,” he said in 1961. (Lewis’s brother, Oscar, is regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker.)

Apart from the outdoor book vendors on 125th Street, Ms. Mulzac’s store became the literary destination in Harlem for a later generation of people “interested in race.” Shariff Simmons, a musician and poet, once called it U.C.L.A., for University on the Corner of Lenox Avenue. (Lenox Avenue is also known as Malcolm X Boulevard.)

The obit opens with an anecdote about Mulzac refusing to sweep the street in front of her store, even though the Department of Sanitation sent her dozens of summonses for refusing to do so. “She was convinced,” the Times reports, “that the city’s purpose in asking her to sweep a strip of Malcolm X Boulevard was nothing less than ‘to control every aspect of the black struggle.’” It closes with an anecdote from her cousin who says that Mulzac “was so feisty, she was evicted from two nursing homes.” Judging by her obituary, her feistiness was put to admirable use for most of her life.

Una Mulzac died in New York on January 21st, 2012, at the age of 88. May we all find outlets for our feistiness that do the world as much good as hers did.

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