Pittsburgh bookstore owner battles city’s adult-business ordinance
The certified letter from the city of Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Building Inspection didn’t shock Greg Eide when it arrived at his downtown bookstore last month.
After all, Eide was in a lease dispute partly over the content of some of the stock of Eide’s Entertainment, renowned for its enormous supply of comic books, videos, trading cards and toys. He suspects the inspectors visited his store at the urging of his landlord.
But he was a bit surprised at the vagueness of the city’s adult-bookstore ordinance, and that his modest offering of adult videos and magazines, such as Playboy and Penthouse, could run afoul of the law.
“They can just say you have pornography and that you’re in violation,” Eide said in a telephone interview. “But how can I judge what they consider to be pornographic?”
Eide opted to challenge the violation rather than remove any magazines or videos. Although the city last week rescinded its violation notice, Eide wants to tackle the law head-on.
“The laws are so vague, they have to be changed,” he said. “We’d love to make a test case for this. I’m all for it.”
But he said he’d be satisfied with an effort by the American Civil Liberties Union to redraft the ordinance and to clarify definitions within the law.
According to a Feb. 2 notice, inspectors visited Eide’s Entertainment on Jan. 24 and determined that the store violated the city’s adult-business ordinance because it had “a section or segment devoted to the sale or display” of adult-oriented material.
The inspectors gave Eide five days from the day of the notice to “remove all material … depicting, describing or relating to the specified sexual activities or specified anatomical areas” from his store shelves or risk prosecution.
But after a meeting last week involving Eide’s attorneys, the ACLU and city officials, the building inspectors rescinded the violation, saying adult material didn’t compose a “substantial” portion of the store’s stock as is required by the law.
“Further, unless the operation of the above business is materially altered, this department will not be undertaking future actions,” wrote Richard Bruce, assistant chief of code enforcement.
Reached at his office, Bruce declined to comment about Eide’s bookstore. He referred questions to Assistant City Solicitor Craig Straw, who did not return phone calls.
Witold “Vic” Walczak, director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, says he hopes the Eide’s incident will draw attention to the dangers of the city’s adult-bookstore ordinance. Walczak says the law is unconstitutionally vague because it doesn’t define “substantial” or “segment or section.”
“Given this vagueness, the city really has the discretion and the authority to go after anybody for displaying erotic material,” he said in a telephone interview. “Under this definition, they could go after Barnes & Noble, Borders and Blockbuster.”
Walczak says the ACLU’s goal is to get the ordinance changed. He says his staff is drafting a letter urging officials to review and amend the definitions, and he says they will ask the city to refrain from enforcing the law until such action can be taken.
Meanwhile, Eide still faces a March 8 court date when a civil court jury will determine if he violated his lease by failing to pay a rent increase and for selling pornography.
For more than 30 years — 11 of those at its current location — Eide’s Entertainment has peddled comic books, trading cards, toys, compact discs, cassettes, books and videos. Today, Eide estimates that his stock exceeds 2 million items, of which only 500 to 1,000 pieces might be considered “adult.”
He said inspectors and his landlord’s attorney have fished through his inventory records and flipped through books on the shelves trying to find indecent material. With a laugh, he noted that one person enthusiastically found a book titled The Kinks, only to learn later that it was about a British rock band.
Dwight Ferguson, attorney for Light of Life Ministries, noted that his client inherited the lease from the previous building owner and is merely attempting to get Eide to honor the earlier commitment.
Ferguson says he understands the First Amendment concerns involved in a zoning inspector citing a bookstore, but he added that Eide’s Entertainment’s stock could hardly be compared to that of Barnes & Noble or Blockbuster.
“What Mr. Eide is selling are not the publications he mentions in interviews but are really the most hard-core pornography that is printed,” Ferguson said. “When we are fact-specific, there are plenty of distinctions to be made.”
But Ferguson said Light of Life officials didn’t unleash zoning inspectors on the bookstore as Eide suspects. He says the city has an army of code enforcement officers capable of doing the job themselves.
“But we have been and always will be cooperative with enforcement as we would on any matter involving any of our buildings,” Ferguson said.
Walczak of the ACLU said that even if Light of Life had initiated an inspection, they would have been within their First Amendment right of petition. But he said he would fault city officials for following through on the claim, as he suspects they did in Eide’s situation.
“The city needs to use independent judgment and decline to do something that’s illegal,” he said in a telephone interview. “They did not do that in this case.”
In the meantime, Eide said he never once thought of backing down and is eager to pursue efforts to strike the adult-bookstore law down.
“At first, they’ll get certain magazines,” Eide said. “But then they’ll get magazines and videos that are a little tamer and a little tamer where it could come down to Michael Jackson grabbing his crotch. I wasn’t about to open the door for a continuing amount of harassment. I wasn’t going to even give them an inch.”
— Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for freedomforum.org.