Filmmaker highlights struggles of NYC’s street booksellers

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

NEW YORK — An award-winning documentary about street booksellers
in New York City “is a dramatic example of how far government will go, how far
down it will reach, to seek to oppress people who are trying to spread the
written word,” said John Seigenthaler, the founder of the First Amendment
Center.

Seigenthaler moderated a discussion last night with filmmaker and
bookseller Jason Rosette and booksellers Thomas Dukleth and Peter Whitney after
a screening of the documentary “BookWars” at the First Amendment Center –
New York.

A gritty, often humorous and sometimes sad depiction of the days and
nights of the booksellers on West 4th and 6th Avenues, “BookWars” addresses the
impact of the “Quality of Life” campaign that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instituted
in the 1990s against street vendors.

“They [city officials] have preceded in recent years to emphasize
zoning restrictions on the placement of any sort of sidewalk stand —
whether it is books or hot dog stands or whatever else,” Dukleth said. He
explained that the “clever way they’ve gone about it” is to focus on “aesthetic
appearances,” noting that “some person’s notion of aesthetics is an
unobstructed vista.”

“There has been a rather strong outcry at attempting to zone out huge
sections of the city at one time, so the current course is rather slow and
gradual,” he added.

One bookseller in the film likened the surge of city harassment, in
the form of sweeps by the police department, to “locusts straight out of the
Old Testament.”

“In my perspective the whole notion of the souk, of the marketplace,
precedes even this giant colony which we call the United States of America,”
Rosette said. “That should be allowed to endure — the freedom of the
marketplace now translated to some degree to the freedom of expression, the
freedom of speech.”

“But I wasn’t thinking in terms of the First Amendment when I made the
film,” he added.

Dukleth concurred. “The emphasis of the film was the characters, the
interesting people who were the booksellers around the particular locale where
the film was made,” he said. “The clinical aspect of the First
Amendment was treated secondarily.”

The film, which won Best Documentary at the New York Underground Film
Festival 2000, has been shown in New York, Chicago and Minnesota so far. It
will be shown in the West sometime in the fall.

The documentary’s rag-tag bunch of men — no female sellers are
seen — is what makes it so compelling. The many characters who pop up are
colorful: Everette, who is “impervious to the cold” and works each day in
shorts and Chinese slippers; Polish Joe, who is referred to as “The Drifter”
because he sells all over the city instead of setting up shop in the same place
each day; Al Mapo, so-called because he sold only maps and atlases; Boris, the
Russian who summed it all up by saying, “We’re not out here to get a suntan,
we’re out here to make money.”

Still, for many of the vendors book-selling is about much more than
making money. Many of these men are book addicts, their interest in books
someplace between “a passion and a compulsion,” as one of the unnamed
booksellers in the film says.

Peter Whitney, who Rosette says he learned the most from in his
book-selling career, also spoke of the sellers’ dedication.

“You are working directly for your customers. If you set up in the
same place, you have people who come back,” Whitney said. “You are working for
a particular audience. You have an idea of what they want to read and you go
out and find it for them.

“We went out and found them at book sales from Connecticut to
Philadelphia,” he continued. “It’s a lot of work. You go to a book sale and
there are 100 dealers lined up out front. You begin to recognize books by their
spine. Your eyes become like a barcode reader. You don’t have to read the
title, you recognize the spine of the book. It’s a pretty wild time.”

Rosette then spoke about his reasons for producing the film.

“My intention was always to celebrate rather than to tear down. There
is always a world right in front of our eyes that can be approached with new
eyes, which is what I tried to do. It [book selling] is a valuable service,
it’s a valuable cultural component of our city,” he said.

Seigenthaler added, “I think an awful lot of us take those 45 words
[of the First Amendment] for granted. Over the last decade there really has
been a war, not just a book war, but a war on the First Amendment. All of us
will remember that those 45 words are what Ben Franklin said they were —
a precious gift worth preserving and protecting — and I think that this
film helps preserve and protect them.”

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