Monday, September 28, 2009

Books on the Street

As discussed in a post not too many weeks back, New York has lost many of its independent bookstores. The Strand pretty much stands alone as the great independent bookstore of New York, though I have enjoyed browsing at a handful of others still standing in places like the Village, Soho, and the area around Columbia University. And as I recently indicated, I am guilty of being seduced by the enormous collections at chains like the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble and at Border's, especially the one at Columbus Circle. But there is another New York custom that is rather quaint when it comes to bookstores, and that is the large number of small bookstands on the street where stalwart booksellers hawk contemporary best sellers, as well as a variety of classic texts.

If you visit the southern end of Central Park, the blocks along Broadway near 72nd Street, or a number of places around Columbia University, you can't help being struck by the excellent deals, not just for the hottest books, but also those that appeal to more academic tastes. Books like the new one on Jane Jacobs, the great crusader for a less car-dominated urban environment, or the one by Adam Gopnik, comparing the lives of Darwin and Lincoln, are frequently in stock. And, hey, if you want either of Mr. Obama's books, they are readily available at a very reasonable price.

I spoke to one of these long time booksellers up near 72nd and Broadway the other day, and he said he's been hauling books out to his favorite spot for well over 20 years. He doesn't make a lot money, but he does make a profit. How much he wouldn't tell me, nor would he tell me where he gets most of his books, but he did mention he picks up a lot of them for almost nothing at flea markets and used book store fundraisers like the one regularly held by the Housing Works Group, which raises money to support homeless people with AIDS.

He also noted that he was part of the Bookwars protests that occurred when Mayor Giuliani back in the late 1990s tried to get "nonlegitimate" vendors off the streets, which, at first, included the booksellers. But because there were so many protests and because so many college and university professors signed petitions and other documents supporting the booksellers, the Mayor eventually relented and let the booksellers alone. My sense is that New York benefits from these bookselling street vendors, and that it is a very good thing that they continue to be able to do business in their favorite neighborhoods and on their favorite streets.

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