Mayme A. Clayton y su Third World Ethnic Book Store. Las librerías, una herramienta para persistir en el tiempo

Preserving African-American History: The Legacy of Mayme A. Clayton by Ramy Eletreby


At just 9 years old, a little girl named Mayme Agnew walked into the library of her school in Van Buren, Arkansas, to look for something to read. The year was 1932 and the school had only a dozen students, all of whom were African-American. This was the South in the time of segregation – what we now refer to as the Jim Crow era. The library consisted of two stacks of bricks and a plank of wood. All of the books on the shelf were either written by or were about white men.

Mayme was curious. She didn’t understand why none of the books featured people who looked like her. Surely, black folks had stories too, she thought. Surely, black people were skilled and accomplished too, she thought. There was an inconsistency between what she saw – or didn’t see – in that library and what she knew. Mayme knew that her father, Jerry Agnew, was an accomplished black man. He owned a five and dime store in Van Buren, the first business owned by an African-American in the area, which was a source of great pride for the family.

Mayme recognized this absence of black history as being distinctly political. She knew that this omission was something that needed to be rectified. She knew African-Americans were skilled and talented and that they deserved to be recognized and celebrated for their contributions to society. She knew that if she didn’t do something to preserve her people’s history, then the accomplishments of black people might be erased forever.

Being in that library was a defining moment for Mayme. It was then when she realized her true calling in life, according to her youngest son, Lloyd L. Clayton.

“My mother was a very spiritual person,” says Lloyd. “She was raised Southern Baptist and because of that, she always felt that she had some higher purpose to fulfill.”

By the 1960s, Mayme Agnew Clayton had married and was living in the West Adams district of Los Angeles with her husband and three sons. While working as a university librarian, first for USC and then later for UCLA, she again recognized how little African-Americans were represented in these libraries. Mayme often requested a budget to purchase a small collection of African-American books. She was denied. Every time.


Mayme A. Clayton as a young woman. Photo courtesy of Lloyd L. Clayton and the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum.

At around this time, Mayme and her husband separated. He didn’t approve of her working so much, but she knew there was something bigger calling her to do this work.

Not one to be easily discouraged, Mayme started collecting her own books. She took an early retirement from UCLA, traveled to West Africa and brought home whatever books and artifacts she could pack into her luggage. Mayme’s collection started to grow. In addition to African and African-American works, she also collected Chicano and Native American works as well.

“Every time my mother would go out, she would come home with a new book. Then two new books, then three, then a whole box,” Lloyd remembers. “I would be at home looking at the television and I would hear her pull up and honk the horn, which meant, ‘Come pick up these books!’”

In 1972, as her collection kept on growing, Mayme met the owner of Universal Books, a store located on Hollywood Boulevard directly across the street from the Pantages Theatre, where the W Hotel sits today. This man had his own collection of African-American books but his business was struggling financially. He heard about Mayme and asked her to partner with him and bring her collection into his store. Mayme invested all her retirement money from UCLA into that man’s store, having no idea that he frequented the horse tracks. In 1974, he had gambled away all the business’ money in one day. Universal Books was shut down.

Though disappointed and betrayed, Mayme drew upon her faith and remained calm. She refused to be discouraged. As a concession, her partner gave up his collection to her and she decided to run her own bookstore out of the garage of her West Adams house. That store was called Third World Ethnic Book Store.


Mayme Clayton in 1973. Photo by Art Rogers, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, UCLA Library.



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