West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 5 | July 4 - 10, 2007

Villager photo by Esther Martin

“Willy O.” at his table on Sixth Ave.

Vendors wrote the book on First Amendment rights

Interviews by Esther Martin

“Anonymous” — book vendor on Sixth Ave. between Eighth St. and Waverly Pl.:

So I assume you’re familiar with your right to sell books under the First Amendment?

Yes, and all I sell are reading materials, or movies. It’s all under freedom of speech.

Do you take your table and materials away at night or leave it all here on the sidewalk?

I leave everything out, like this, at night, just wrapped up under the plastic.

How do you get your merchandise?

Some of it people donate. Like if someone is moving, they don’t need their stuff anymore, they might tell me and I go pick it up. Some of it I buy — I mean, I try to keep really nice stuff. Stuff like the art books, you generally have to buy. People aren’t just going to give that away, you know? 

What sells the best?

I sell good books, literature, you know? That’s mainly what I do. People stop here before they get to Barnes & Noble, even people with money, because what’s the point of spending $25 on a book in there if you can come to me and I’ll sell it to you for $5? And magazines, the old magazines, they generally sell to, like, fashion designers. I had a lady come the other day and she bought about $50 in only British Vogues. That’s the kind of stuff that sells.

Is this your only job? How long have you been a book vendor?

This is what I do for a living. I’m trying to put my kids through college. I’ve been doing this for a really long, long time. Once the weather gets good, I’m out here all the time, as much as I can. I do that so I don’t have to be out so much when it’s colder out. When it’s warmer out, I come out here on Thursday and I don’t leave until Saturday morning, 24/7. Last week, I did that. Today, I’m coming out here around 12, I’ll probably stay till around 9 o’clock, and that’s pretty average.

Do the police ever bother you?

Not that often, you know? But sometimes they come through and say, “You can’t leave it unattended at night, it has to be stored,” and then they throw it all out. They come through with a trash truck and just dump everything. If you aren’t with your table, it all gets thrown away.

What do you do when that happens?

I try to find some more tables so that I can keep doing my job! It’s not that much of a problem. I don’t really have anything against them. Whenever that happens, I just start over, get more donations, call up the people I know and tell them what happened, and then I just rebuild again. It hasn’t happened very recently, not for several months.

Some of the guys out here sell vintage Playboys. Do you?

Well yeah, I sell old Playboys, Penthouse, that kind of stuff. It’s all reading material, you know? That’s what somebody wants to read. … I have all kinds of that stuff, I’m just a businessman, you know? With all that stuff, though, you just can’t have it exposed, you don’t want to have that on the street where little kids can just walk by and see whatever. That’s what I keep under the table in the bins.

Collectors look for that stuff, the old Playboys. There are articles in those that people want to read. You could go on eBay for that, too, but then it costs you more than coming to me. On eBay, if you buy a magazine for 10 bucks, in the end it costs 15, with shipping and all that. If you were to just come to me, it would just be 10 bucks in the first place.

Do you sell anything besides books?

I have a lot of movies, too — never bootlegs, I don’t believe in piracy at all. Plus, that can get you in trouble with the cops. I get a lot of VHS tapes from people moving out, or say if someone got a DVD player and can’t use them anymore.

Do you need a license or anything to be a vendor out here?

No, not since all I’m selling is covered by the freedom of speech, you know? Movies, videos, it’s still freedom of speech, just you’re watching instead of reading. You don’t need a license to do this.
“Willy O.” — book vendor on Sixth Ave. at Waverly Pl.:

Are you aware of your right to sell books?

Yes, I know my rights. The police don’t really bother you if you have a tax stamp. All you need is a tax stamp.

Is this your only job?

Right now, this is what I do for a living, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. All the guys up here are regulars. I’ve had this stand for a long time. I spent the night out here last night, but I’m not going to do that again today. I need my rest!

Who are your main customers?

Just the general population.

Do you sell old Playboys?

If I can find old Playboys, I want those! Those sell. People collect those. That’s what people come and ask for. I don’t have any right now, but I’d take them if I found them. Those are what you gotta keep under the table, where the kids can’t see them. That’s what you can get in trouble for.

Do the police clean you out that often?

That only happens at night, when you leave your stuff on the sidewalk. They say you can’t just leave it, and sometimes they come by with a trash truck and just throw everything away, everything along this whole strip. It hasn’t happened that much recently, the last time was sometime last year, in September or October. Back in the day, that used to happen all the time, I’d say like every week or so.

Do passersby ever say anything negative?

There’s a lady who walks by, and anytime she sees any porn out — a Playboy or anything more hardcore — says she’s gonna call the police. It’s pretty much just leaving the Playboy and hardcore stuff out that gets the complaints. The police come when they get a complaint from the community, and that usually only happens when there’s some hardcore stuff lying around.

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