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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Book Wars

To me, the street life of New York City is one of its defining characteristics and what separates it from any other place in the world. With the growing domination of the retail sector by national and international retail chains, the character of the retail world has become decidedly less unique. Strolling down Broadway in SoHo is very much like strolling the suburban shopping mall - the only big difference is whether you want your mall shopping experience indoors or out. 
Street vendors often provide a food or product difficult to vend profitably in a retail store. For those of us who already spend too much time indoors, browsing a street vendor's wares is also a way to get more outdoor time. Admittedly, there is a plethora of chatchkas and tacky tourist memorabilia. Like anything else in New York, you must pick your battles and be selective - it is difficult to make any blanket characterizations of the merchandise on the streets. There is better or worse in nearly everything here - places like Canal Street are both bazaars and minefields.
One of the most worthwhile activities on the street is the sale of books. Here too, there are some vendors of some extremely poor quality magazines and books, where a cursory examination makes it clear that the primary operative is selling merchandise.
But there is a small world of street booksellers who are extremely literate and knowledgeable about books, often more so than a bookstore staff member. These vendors are people who are not criminals, drug addicts, derelicts or thieves. They acquire their books from estate sales, thrift shops, remainder bins, foundations, used bookstores or trash heaps. A perusal of the titles sold by Everett Shapiro at the tables on West 4th Street (in the photo) in the heart of the NYU "campus", will tell you that the selection here is quality - one that a serious reader can take seriously.
Everett was one of the featured characters in the independent film Bookwars, which won Best Documentary at the New York Underground Film Festival in 2000. The film was made by filmmaker Jason Rosette who was a NYU film school graduate and became a street bookseller himself. The 1999 book Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier also examines the world of the sidewalk booksellers.
Street booksellers (and sellers of art) are protected by the free speech provision of the First Amendment of the Constitution and are allowed to sell on the streets without a license. However, in spite of this, efforts were made during the Giuliani administration as part of his Quality of Life campaign to crack down. The effort was highly contentious and eventually the police backed off. The numbers of street booksellers has declined but there are still those who are passionate about books and they can still be found here and there ...

Photo Note: These are the tables of Everett, located on West 4th Street in front of NYU's Bobst Library.

3 comments:

Gigi said...

Awesome post. I love the picture. You have a great blog.

Anonymous said...

Very nice posting ! There`s so much background information in your post, which harmonizes so great with your pictures, it`s just great! I guess theres no other blog that allows its readers to gain such vast amount of different "real life" impressions about new york, like this one. Yet I´ve never been in nyc but i´m thankfull to "experience" your blog.
Keep it up !

naomid said...

The Gold Glitter Van Man of the East Village in the late 90's (named John?) is my old book hero.