Throwing the Book at a Broadway fixture News

| 18 Jul 2016 | 03:58

An Upper West Side mainstay disappeared virtually overnight earlier this month, when police dismantled the sidewalk bookselling enterprises along two blocks of Broadway.

The booksellers’ tables, near-permanent fixtures on the west side of Broadway between 72nd and 74th streets for decades, were removed by police on July 5 and 7.

The sole bookseller to return to Broadway following the sweep, Kirk Davidson, said that although there had been previous enforcement actions aimed at the booksellers, this latest one was the most comprehensive in the 31 years he has been on Broadway. “This is new,” Davidson, 58, said. “It is sad.”

Police acted after property owners and tenants association leaders met with Public Advocate Leticia James to complain about the sellers, representatives from that office said.

The complaints alleged that the row of tables constituted an encampment and the sellers themselves had become a nuisance and an impediment to more conventional commerce. The property owners said the sellers harassed residents, openly drank alcohol, urinated in the street and created an overall “hostile environment,” representatives from James’ office said. In one alleged incident, one of the sellers threw a brick through a nearby shop window.

Following those discussions, James sent a staff member to investigate. After being shown pictures of the booksellers and their stands and concluding that the sellers had declined to be held accountable for any troubles, James called police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

“It was taken care of within a few days,” a representative from James’ office said.

About a week after the tables were taken apart and thousands of books impounded, Davidson, sitting in a small chair in front of the Chase Bank branch just south of 73rd Street, a few feet from a single folding table covered with books, said parked police cruisers were now a constant presence. On July 13, three police cars were parked curbside near Davidson’s table. A half-dozen officers, including a sergeant and a supervisor, conferred nearby.

Davidson, who was not present during the initial July 5 sweep, was issued two summonses, one for storing unattended property on a sidewalk.

Davidson said he was undeterred. Although he was making a few sales from the few dozen books arrayed on the folding table, he said he would go to court to seek the release of the inventory seized by police. A five-page invoice documented roughly 2,000 books police had impounded. Most of Davidson’s inventory, as well as that of the other booksellers, most of whom work for Davidson, is comprised of donations.

He attributed the latest police action to what he called “major money boys.” With exclusive retailers such as Bloomingdale’s planting a flag in the neighborhood, and others likely on the way, he said, that stretch of Broadway was fast becoming a branded enclave that is, at best, wary of sidewalk enterprises.

“Big money coming, little money got to go,” Davidson, wearing a pressed collared shirt and shorts and white sandals, said on July 13, the Wednesday following the sweep.

“You’re going to have some that like us, others that don’t,” he said of residents and property owners.

On that Wednesday evening and the following morning, passers-by approached him to express sympathy and disbelief at the city’s move. “Again?” one woman said to him. “This has been happening for 100 years.”

On Thursday, a window washer sponged and squeegeed the windows of the former Loehmann’s outlet while contractors cleared clutter from the bare insides, on the ground-floor of the Ansonia, the Beaux-Art condominium residence between 73rd and 74th Streets. News reports following Loehmann’s bankruptcy in 2014 suggested that asking rent for the 40,000-square-foot space was $4.75 million.

Jesse Krasnow, president of Sirius Realty and the owner of the Ansonia for nearly 40 years, who earlier this year complained about the booksellers, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Gregg Wolpert, the president of The Stahl Organization and the developer of a 76-unit condominium building across from the Ansonia, who earlier this year said that “some lower volume” of booksellers could be tolerable if city officials also addressed the homeless whom he suggested congregate nearby.

Davidson acknowledged that there were “trouble guys” among the vendors – “This is New York City,” he said – but he also chastised city officials for what he said was their lack of consideration for street vendors. He suggested that rather than facilitating the installation of increasingly ubiquitous Wi-Fi towers, the city should install a public toilet and washroom.

Davidson, who has been issued dozens of summonses for a variety of offenses – for neglecting to put prices on his books, for obstruction and for leaving unattended property – during his three decades on Broadway, called the latest police move “nonsense.”

As booksellers, Davidson and his colleagues are considered First Amendment vendors, meaning that they can set up shop without vending licenses. They must still abide by city regulations on where and how they display their wares, however.

Norman Siegel, the civil rights lawyer, who has lived nearby for about 30 years, said he was puzzled by the city’s action.

“The basic constitutional point is they do have a First Amendment right,” he said. “I don’t see any problem. They’re not blocking anything.”

That the booksellers leave their wares overnight could, however, be more of a “gray area,” he said.

And although Siegel alluded to the neighborhood’s changed profile as a possible motivation for city officials to remove the booksellers, he lamented their loss. “There should be Upper West Side tolerance toward the booksellers,” he said.

But Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, whose district includes Broadway in the lower 70s, said she had heard complaints about the booksellers from nearly her first day in office in 2013.

“I actually encouraged this to happen,” she said of the booksellers’ removal.

Rosenthal said the booksellers’ presence was often raised at the 20th Precinct’s monthly community council meetings that she attended. The issue, she said, was among those of most concern to constituents. She said she had on several occasions met with residents and the police, but not with the booksellers themselves, to discuss residents’ concerns.

“We get so many qualify-of-life complaints about vendors that don’t abide by the rules, in this case leaving things overnight unattended for a really long time,” she said.

“It’s just a matter of abiding by the law,” Rosenthal said, alluding to the sellers’ unattended storing of their wares, which is addressed in a provision of the city’s administrative code originally targeting abandoned cars. “This was not done lightly.”

Although Rosenthal said she was assured by police that all of the confiscated property was inventoried and catalogued, Davidson said a sizeable quantity of books was hauled away by trash collectors.

Officials at the 20th Precinct referred questions about the books’ removal to the police department’s public information office downtown. An official there said by email only that that police “removed and safeguarded the unattended property.”

The official did not respond to a follow-up inquiry asking why tables that were attended were also disassembled, or to claims that some books were trashed or about the number and types of summonses issued to the booksellers.

Davidson has battled and sued the city following similar enforcement actions and obtained financial settlements totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars for, among other matters, malicious prosecution, Davidson and his attorney, John Levy, said.

Levy declined to detail the settlements or what he called “ongoing litigation” against the city.

He did acknowledge that the neighborhood’s increasingly upscale character put pressure on the police. “Bloomingdale’s likes everything to be clean and neat,” he said, admitting that the booksellers’ trade sometimes “gets a little messy.”

Still, he suggested that Davidson and other booksellers should not be shoved aside. “He can sue,” Levy said. “He is very honest. He’s out there trying to make a living.”

Richard Khavkine: