May 2012 | Nate Pedersen

No Crystal Stair: An Interview with Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Over the weekend I interviewed librarian and author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson about her new "documentary novel" No Crystal Stair.  The innovative novel follows the life and career of the bookseller and civil rights activist Lewis Michaux, who operated the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem from c.1932 - 1974.

no-crystal-stair.gifNP: When and how did you first become interested in writing about Lewis Michaux and the National Memorial?

VMN: I started collecting information about him and the store in the late 1980s while I was in library school at the University of Pittsburgh.  As more and more people asked if I was related to the Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux, my curiosity grew.  At the time, I wasn't thinking about writing a book.  I was compiling family history.  It wasn't until the mid 1990s that the idea of a biography became real.  By then, I had learned enough about Lewis to realize that the bookstore was only part of the story, that the real story was in Lewis's journey toward salvation.  Books saved him, and Lewis saved others by bringing them to books.

NP: Could you tell us a bit about the concept of a documentary novel? What about that format appeals to you?

VMN: No Crystal Stair began as straight biography, but evolved into a kind of historical work that my husband started calling 'documentary fiction'.  When we were kicking around titles, my editor suggested we use "documentary novel" in the subtitle.  This worked for me.   Think of it as the book equivalent of a film documentary in which individuals with some connection to the subject share their thoughts and experiences amidst historical photos and footage -- all filtered through a writer's imagination. 

After I shifted to the new format, I found real pleasure in the storytelling.  It gave me options and flexibility, and allowed me to explore Lewis in a deeper way.  I came to know the people around him more intimately.   One of the things I admire about Marilyn Nelson's Carver: A Life in Poems is that she informs readers about George Washington Carver's brilliance and accomplishments, while capturing the essence of the man, the nature of his spirit.  This was my intent with No Crystal Stair. 

NP: What did you think of National Memorial when you visited the bookshop as a teenager?

VMN: I remember that the store was narrow and crowded with books and pamphlets and customers, and I remember the portraits of famous black people lining the walls.  Uncle Lonnie (as we knew him) gave me two books -- The Masquerade, a historical novel by Oscar Micheaux and a copy of the King James Bible.  It was 1968.  I know this because Lewis signed and dated the Bible.  The two books remain in my collection.

NP: One thing that struck me as I read the book and your notes on the research was the shifting concept of time.  Lewis provided differing birth years for himself, differing years for the start of his bookshop.  Government records were often missing or inaccurate.  It's such a contrast to this day and age where it feels like every moment of our lives is documented for posterity.  I liked the sense of mystery about it.  How did you feel about this as a researcher and writer?  Why do you think Lewis was guarded about dates?

VMN: Lewis was quite a raconteur and sometimes embellished the facts in one venue and then forgot, or didn't care, that he'd done so.  I think he suggested he was ten years older than I believe he was because he got a kick out of appearing more youthful than the age he claimed.  

These kinds of inconsistencies were frustrating when I was attempting to research and write straight biography.  I wanted to get the facts right.  But, once I shifted to documentary fiction and allowed myself the freedom to speculate and imagine, I began to feel like you.  The sense of mystery added intrigue and led me to wonder.  This wondering, I believe, brought me to truths that I might not have discovered otherwise.  However, as someone trying to uncover family history, I wish I had more answers.  My search isn't over. 

NP: What do you think is the lasting legacy of National Memorial?

VMN: That who we become depends a great deal on our own desire to be educated, our efforts to know our history and gain knowledge of ourselves, as well as how we might contribute.  And, of course, that books help us succeed.  To quote Lewis, "Knowledge is power, you need it every hour.  Read a book!"

NP: What do you think bookshops of today could learn from National Memorial?  Are there any currently operating bookshops that remind you of National Memorial or are in some way carrying on the legacy?

VMN: Every bookshop has it's own clientele and community to which it looks when tailoring it's offerings.  But one thing to take from National Memorial is that the draw of a bookstore is not only the books; it's the people who customers encounter there.  Bookstore employees need to be knowledgeable and passionate about what they sell.  Lewis knew and loved his stock.  But he also made it his business to connect with his community.  He gave as much time to people who came to look or talk as to those who came to buy.  And closing time wasn't dictated by the clock.    

If you do a quick Internet search of black bookstores, you will find that they exist all over the country.  I can't claim to know much about these stores as I haven't had the opportunity to patronize them.  There are none near me.   I'd like to visit them one day but, right now, I can only hope each embodies something of Lewis's spirit.

PROMO PHOTO by Drew Nelson.jpg
NP: Are you personally a book collector?  If so, what do you collect?

VMN: I love and collect books of many kinds, but I seem to gravitate to children's books, classics, and black history.

NP: What is your next project?

VMN: A picture book for younger readers about Lewis and the bookstore.  Gregory Christie, the artist for No Crystal Stair, will create the art.  Gregory also illustrated my picture book biography, Bad News for Outlaws: the Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, another project which required quite a bit of historical digging.  I'm always working on something, but after dedicating 15 years to No Crystal Stair, I need a break from heavy research.  I'm taking a breath.

[Many thanks to Vaunda for this interview.  You can purchase her book from Amazon, or from a wide variety of independent booksellers.]

[Many thanks as well to the bookseller Marc Selvaggio for drawing my attention to this book].

[Photo of National Memorial from an unidentified photographer. Photo of Vaunda taken by her husband, Drew Nelson]