Sidewalk booksellers were a common sight in New York City when I lived there. And I frequently bought from them. At first I was surprised they were allowed to set up shop–I didn’t notice a merchant’s license, which vendors selling anything from berets to Falafel needed in order to stay in business. A friend of mine way back in the 80s was selling tee shirts to make some cash to support her acting bug. On the corner of Tiffany’s she had a pile of shirts. No table, or even over turned crates to support the wares. It was a discreet business. I was handing out flyers for an upscale shoe store a block away. The undercover police popped up and took my friend and her tee shirts away. But nothing happened to me. True, I wasn’t trying to sell anything, but I was in front of a business handing out another business’ advertisement. What I learned from this incident–freedom of speech trumps New York City police.
Apparently, that’s what I had, freedom of speech in the shape of flyers boasting 10 per cent off waterproof boots (which by the way, turned out not so water proof during a 4 foot snow storm). I was perplexed. I understood freedom of speech in the way it related to politics, but not so much in regard to flyers, and the guy peddling books down the street from where I stood. The fact that I could disseminate information for sales purposes was surprising. After some research today, I found that this point has been bantered around the Supreme Court a few times, and for now, it’s considered free speech, The selling of books on the side of the road has been a given for a long time. Here’s what Street Vender has to say about first amendment rights for the vendor:
“Under the First Amendment, people who sell newspapers, magazines, cds, books and art on the street may do so without a vending license. However, you still must abide by the city’s many restrictions on where you put your table, and there are many streets where you cannot vend at all . You must also abide by the New York State tax law by getting a tax ID and by collecting and paying sales taxes on what you sell.”
When I first encountered sidewalk sellers, I thought it was crazy to lug so many books around to set up during the day, and then break down at night. How could anyone make money at this? Well, some do, at least enough to live on, if you live cheaply.
One of those who has done just that is Charles Mysak. Mr. Mysak has had several 15 minutes of fame in his life, starting with being a lawyer in high standing in NJ, to suing the state to keep housing from being built in a flood area, to being disbarred by NJ for embezzling money from clients–which he still denies. And recently he’s been the subject of a short film made by an NYU student, and a couple of articles in the NY Times and NY Post. He has kept the space for selling books for the past 11 years, with his old car parked in a spot at 68th and Columbus Ave. His wife drives him in from Wayne NJ, everyday, in time to move his car out of the spot on street cleaning days, and then back again. He says it takes him 4 hours to set up everything and the same amount of time to break down. He’s outlived the Barnes and Noble down the street that started up around the time he did, and recently shut down. He’s had dogs pee on his books–the owners browsing and not caring, he’s had police give him citations for books sitting on the ground, and a flower fanatic has summoned authorities every time he may put a book against the tree the person insists on planting flowers around. And he endures the varying assaults of the weather.
What would compel someone to go through this kind of hell just for piles of used books? A passion for books. For all kinds, types, years, genres. He has stated : “in this three-by-eight stand is the answer to every human question.”
He quotes everyone from Dante to Raymond Chandler and can pull out the most boring looking book, and convince a passerby that it holds beauty within. But the business has slowed down considerably lately, and not due to a bad economy. People are too involved within themselves, he feels. When someone walking down the street years ago appeared to be talking to themselves, it was an oddity and the person thought to be insane. Now with earphones and technology, everyone is talking to themselves and not paying a bit of attention to anything around them, including his books. Years ago certain titles would leap off the table within hours of being offered, now they sit there for days, and no one bothers looking. He makes far less than he used to each day, but still enough to live on frugally. From reading articles about him I’d bet even if he wasn’t making any money, he’s still find a way to sell books–or in his case, bestow knowledge upon others–because more than anything he enjoys giving a passerby a a gem pulled out of his stock, and conveying whatever knowledge and magic contained within. And that’s the mark or a true bookman!
To view the student film about Mr. Mysak go here:
Photo from the New York Times