Una G. Mulzac came to mind last week when it was announced that Revolution Books was opening a store in Harlem. The location of the bookstore, which will continue to shelve an array of militant and radical books, is near the corner of 132nd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, only a few steps from where Mulzac’s Liberation Bookstore stood for years.
Her bookstore, which closed in 2005, was established in 1967 and welcomed by the activist community in particular after the demolishing of Lewis Michaux’s bookstore, the House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda, as he called it.
In the same way Mulzac carried on the service provided by Michaux, Revolution Books has the unenviable duty to carry on the tradition Mulzac was famous for and that she delivered with passion for more than a generation. No matter the success of the new venture, it will fall short of matching Mulzac’s impressive resume as an activist, book lover and defiant opposition to injustice, be it socio-political repression or the encroachment of the city on her property rights.
Mulzac came about her militancy and resistance from her family, mainly her father, Hugh Mulzac, who worked with Marcus Garvey as a ship captain and his advisor on a seafaring business in the 1920s. He was also the first African-American to command a ship in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Mulzac was probably at sea when his daughter was born April 19, 1923, in Baltimore, though she grew up in Brooklyn. Her inexhaustible spirit and physical stamina were apparent at a very early age. She was 14 in 1937 when she won the 50-yard dash championship for New York City girls between the ages of 13 and 16.
It was with a similar speed that she hurried successfully through the curriculum at Girls High, excelling in practically all of her studies. Even then, she was dreaming of being an entrepreneur and owning a business.
An inveterate bibliophile who read constantly, Mulzac found her paradise when she was employed at Random House, one of the nation’s largest publishing companies. This position only increased her love for books and her desire to have her own store. After leaving Random House, she worked at a number of clerical jobs, including one as a stenographer. All the while, she was very politically active and eventually succumbed to the lure of revolutionary politics, then emerging in Guyana under the leadership of Cheddi Jagan.
In 1964, she was working at a bookstore in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, when she was near a co-worker who had been asked to remove a suspicious package left by a customer. “It was like a shoebox,” she recalled, “and I asked my assistant, Michael Forde, to take it out. But instead of taking it outside, he started opening it and it blew him to bits. His body parts were strewn all over the place.
“The only thing that saved me was a big metal barrel we used for garbage that I was standing behind,” she continued. “The impact of the explosion knocked me backwards, but I never lost consciousness. They said blood was coming out of my eye and a little piece of shrapnel pierced me just below my heart.”
She was rushed to the hospital and remained there for six weeks. The package, it was later learned, contained 50 pounds of dynamite, and many of Mulzac’s friends and cohorts believed it planted by the CIA, which had allegedly been involved in a number of explosions and acts of sabotage with the aim of preventing the emergence of a Cuba-like nation in South America.
It was a rude awakening and an almost lethal moment for Mulzac, who was transported back to the U.S. for treatment of her damaged eyes. Upon recovery, her desire to return to Guyana was undaunted, though it was a brief return because things had taken a turn for the worse when the political group she favored was not in power and facing heavy repression.
Even so, her vigor for activism was not stymied. She shifted her energy and activism to struggles closer to home. By 1966, she was back in the states, and a year later, with the assistance of her sister Claire, Liberation Bookstore was launched.
Mulzac was strongly advised not to name the store Liberation, claiming it would only invite more trouble, even a bombing. But, strong-willed as ever, she forged ahead under that banner and the store was soon a must-stop for visiting revolutionaries from all over the world. Similar to Michaux’s Memorial Bookstore, local activists and intellectuals found more than food for thought at her store. From time to time, it was a place for heated discussion on social and political issues, and Mulzac would be right in the center of it all.
Mulzac, when she wasn’t behind the counter at the store, was marching with protesters for whatever cause crossed her desk, and there were few that she disdained.
For more than a generation, the store was a nice counterweight to the Schomburg Center a few blocks away. What researchers discovered in the center’s library was replicated at Liberation and was available to be purchased, or read at your leisure, if you didn’t mind Mulzac’s challenges and commentary on what you were reading.
The city and the global radical community were stunned when they heard a fire had destroyed more than half of the stock at the store. Many of the damaged books were given to vendors and other book dealers. It was just another terrible setback for Mulzac, who for years had been waging a fight with the city about maintenance in front of her store, as well as in disputes with her landlord who, on more than one occasion, threatened her with eviction.
The fire was so devastating that she was unable to reopen the store on a regular basis. Several attempts at repairs were unsuccessful, and this failure compounded her mental condition, which had been diagnosed as early stages of dementia. For months she refused to leave her residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. More than once, close friends reported that she didn’t want to be bothered, choosing to stay unmolested in an apartment that was crowded with books, newspapers and magazines.
Near the end of her life, her family decided it was time to move her to a nursing home, where she would spend the remainder of her once-productive life. Mulzac, who never married, died Jan. 21, 2012, at a hospital in Queens.
“She was a sweetheart,” said then-Councilman Charles Barron.