Taking It to the Streets
John High -- 07/03/2000


New film BookWars shines the spotlight on New York City sidewalk booksellers


NOTE: The following Publisher's Weekly article incorrectly states that public intellectual Hakim Hasan, contributor to the book "Sidewalk" (a sociological investigation of NYC street booksellers) appeared in the documentary, BookWars. Although this wasn't the case, Mr. Hasan continued to submit an astonishing range of hostile, spurious, and unsolicited emails to the producers of BookWars.

Three former street booksellers currently own bookstores and one now sells on the Internet.

For many in the book trade, the title BookWars might conjure a battle between chain and independent bookstores. But in director Jason Rosette's new film, which won the Best Documentary award at this year's New York Underground Film Festival, the war affects a more specific segment of today's independent bookselling: those selling on the streets of New York City.

For anyone who has strolled past their tables on Astor Place, West 4th Street, or on Sixth Avenue and Waverly, the question of how these booksellers survive--or even make ends meet--is a wonder. Contrary to popular opinion and adverse publicity in the local press--most of these booksellers are neither homeless nor thieves fencing or pilfering new Harry Potter books off the back of delivery trucks. Most books are used. They gather their wares from estate sales, thrift stores, remainder bins, foundations such as Friends of the Library, used bookstores, trash heaps or, as Rosette pointed out, from New Jersey,--"land of the 10-cent books."

While many street booksellers resemble refugees from the Beat era, they're generally savvy and erudite--and they know their books. They have to, in order to survive. Proof of their abilities is found in the fact that a handful of booksellers from the film have gone on to start their own bookstores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Ithaca and Syracuse. "It's a love of the books, it's an addiction," said Rosette.

Rosette was himself a street bookseller for three years before leaving the trade in 1995 to spend the last five years editing the documentary.

According to Thomas Dukleth, who is featured in the film, selling on the streets facilitated the opening of Book Ark, his used bookstore on 81st and Amsterdam in Manhattan. "It's how I learned to buy books, read my expenses and start an inventory," he told PW.

Tricks of the Trade
Street booksellers buy and then repair their books with the standard booksellers' tool kit: rubbing alcohol, razor blades, Elmer's Glue and tape. If they shrink-wrap a book, the price goes up by as much as $5.

Most store their books in Del Monte banana boxes ("The booksellers choice" due to its sturdy but not bulky shape, Rosette said), and cart them over to their turf each morning, constantly rotating the selection. They carefully preserve and safeguard their titles, both at home and in rented--sometimes temperature-controlled--storage rooms.

They have regular customers and, like any good bookseller, they cater to the taste of their neighborhood clientele.

Rosette came to the trade broke and financially desperate after graduating from New York University as a film major. On a good week, working 10-hour shifts, he could gross $600--though he said many of his fellow street booksellers make as little as $30-$50 a day.

A table might hold anywhere between 300 and 500 titles. Dukleth, whose Book Ark specializes in used academic and foreign-language books, displayed roughly 500 titles a day when he was on the street.

"I started out at zero and built up an inventory of approximately 50,000 titles," Dukleth told PW.

The city allows only one 3'-by-5' table per vendor. By partnering, they can double or triple their display space and the number of books they can shuffle for customers. Most booksellers have their own bestsellers and genre favorites. The booksellers in front of NYU's Bobst Library feature academic nonfiction, coffee-table art books and fiction found on college reading lists; those on Sixth Avenue focus more on magazines and older popular genre fiction and potboilers.

Race issue
The difference between selling books or magazines, as well as specific locations in the Big Apple, brings up the thorny race issue, however--and some observers, including Rosette, point out that the city's policy can be racist when it comes to enforcing zoning restrictions.

Sixth Avenue is populated chiefly by black booksellers, while booksellers near West 4th Street and Washington Square South are predominantly white.

Still, there is a relationship between the sellers. "We crossed paths and traded information, sometimes material," Rosette said. "Trading magazines and books occurs between booksellers from all over the city."

Mitchell Duneier's book Sidewalk (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) also takes an in-depth view of sidewalk booksellers, portraying the hardships as well as prejudices black booksellers endure in New York--especially after Mayor Giuliani instituted a quality of life crackdown on low level, misdemeanor crimes such as graffiti tagging, panhandling, littering, turnstile jumping, jay walking and vagrancy.

Rosette ran into Duneier while he was filming and describes the two projects as parallel but very separate. Whereas BookWars presents a lyrical portrait of street booksellers, Sidewalk gives a more factual and sociological view of the street vendors' world. But some of the same characters appear in both works.

It was the Giuliani crackdown that sparked Rosette to devote himself to editing the film. After seeing Dukleth's book partner in tears as the police tossed their merchandise into plastic garbage bags, Rosette resolved to document the booksellers' lives and plight.

Rosette's film and Duneier's book profile some of the key booksellers working the streets during the '90s. Among those featured, four are currently selling books off the street. Thomas Dukleth owns Book Ark; the hip and smooth-tongued Paul Rickert is now selling books online from his clothing store in Syracuse; and Allen Eisenberg now operates out of Last Exit Books in Brooklyn. Finally, there is Donald Davis, whom Dukleth called "one of the pioneers of street bookselling." After being arrested twice, he sued for alleged harassment by the police as well as the president of NYU. Davis now runs East Village Books.

Some of the other characters introduced in both book and movie include (*) Hakim Hasan, a refugee from the corporate world who worked on Sixth Avenue for seven years; Grady, an ex-panhandler, now magazine vendor, who on his own stopped using crack, heroin and alcohol; Howard, a comic book vendor who doesn't suffer fools; Marvin, "the angel of Sixth Avenue," who went through Alcoholics Anonymous; Slick Rick Sherman, the part-time magician; and Pete, the artist-philosopher from Newark, N.J., who got into the business initially to gather collage material from books.

"I had to tell their story," said Rosette. "Our public spaces, which are often home to our most unique and eccentric public citizens-including the booksellers--must remain public in the truest, Athenian sense."

The customers? They're often as colorful and passionate about books as the booksellers themselves. They keep the city's street booksellers in business--even during crackdowns--and often prefer to buy from these vendors, who they claim know more about their inventory than the average B&N bookseller.

Rosette told PW that Giuliani got so much bad press that the NYPD eventually backed off and left the booksellers alone.

"The heyday of street bookselling is over," Rosette said, citing the fact that many of the people he documented in the film have given up, moved on, opened their own store or disappeared.

But you can find new booksellers are taking their place--except in the winter, when most pack it up for the season and switch hats for their other professions as writers, magicians and even pet groomers.