By Meredith Kurz
Some of the vendors who sell books and other goods on Broadway between 72nd and 74th street were briefly shut down by authorities last week and at least two of them received summonses, according to one of the vendors. It was not clear whether the summonses were issued by the NYPD or by the city Department of Consumer Affairs. Neither agency released information about the incident.
The enforcement action on Thursday comes after residents complained about the vendors at a standing room only 20th precinct meeting. I spoke with several vendors, all of whom requested their names not be used. Many of the booths were back up and running by the next day.
“T- was selling other stuff,” one of the sellers said. Selling books is exercising your first amendments rights: selling other ‘stuff’ is not. The fruit vendor on 72nd and Broadway received a summons as well, they said. A homeless woman who was sleeping in front of Trader Joe’s was allegedly taken away, according to one of the men who vends here.
On Friday at noon many of the tables were still covered with plastic and tarps. The more serious business owners that sell books were already there, most still setting up and one ready for the afternoon trade. While some displays looked haphazard and music boomed out of a, well, boom box, there were several other neater setups.
“Every day, 9-5,” one vendor explained about how he earned a living. “I try to keep my space clean. I think it helps the [storefront] businesses.”
“I love vending; my freedom, my peace, my stability,” he explained.
It was a perfect fall day, and the sidewalks streamed with pedestrians. A local golden retriever dragged its owner over to get a vigorous scratch from one of the vendors. “What could be better than to be out here, seeing the tenants in the building you know, talking with the other sellers? It’s better than being inside.”
One of the sellers was using a ¼ pint bourbon bottle as a water flask. I didn’t see the pit bull mentioned in the 20th precinct meeting, nor did I see men peeing between cars, but it was just noon, and the workday was just starting. An illegally placed oversized desk chair was perched against the building, and a challenging look kept me from inquiring.
I asked one seller about keeping to the 8 foot by 3 foot space restrictions of vending. “I stretch out a bit more,” he admitted. “It’s too small to really put anything out.”
Bloomingdale’s is moving in to the large retail spot on the corner of 72nd that abuts this long line of book tables, the part of the block that has the most issues with neighbors and families that walk by there. “I sweep at night and sweep in the morning…down to the curb” one of the larger volume sellers said. “This keeps my mind focused on other things. We all have our issues.” I confessed my own issue with chocolates. “I have a lot people, they, you know, give me a lot of donations; book donations that is. When I had a freak accident and fell on the ice, the tenants came down and told me to lie still until the ambulance came.”
When asked why they’d decided to sell books as a career, a resounding response was “Freedom.” One owner said his grandmother had her own seafood business. “I’ve been selling since I was eleven years old: it’s in the blood. I like to help other people and I’ve always been in customer service.”
“This is what New York is all about: it’s social interacting.”
The vendors are concerned the Bloomingdale’s, set to open this month, is going to kick them out.
There are potential violations, out in plain sight. Louder music, loitering around the vacant phone booths, lounging on the sidewalk away from their tables, extending far beyond the limits set for table space. Some sellers, although they know it’s illegal, have a lot of items on the ground. As for permits, one vendor said that only veterans can get vendor’s licenses now.
I asked a few of them clustered around the phone booths, “What if we got the Small Business Administration, the community and the street vendors together to come up with a plan?” I got the same polite smile I’d get if asking the question at a board meeting, I’m sure.
Photos by Meredith Kurz. Bottom photo by Reynold.