Taking It to the Streets
John High -- 07/03/2000
New film BookWars shines the spotlight on New York City
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
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 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.
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
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
Rosette told PW that Giuliani got so much bad press that
the NYPD eventually backed off and left the booksellers
"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
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.