IMG_0286Everybody assumes that the books sold on Broadway on the Upper Westside “fell off the back of a truck”. I wonder. “Wastage” as we call it in the business does happen — we even allow for it in fixing our print runs — but how much is there? It’s rather hard to steal a carton of books from most publishers’ warehouses, even if we don’t have the sort of 30-minute employee searches that Amazon does. Books can get damaged just sitting there in the warehouse, but allow them an expedition into the retail environment and you are asking for trouble. Returns go thorough a sorting process where the unsalable copies are weeded out and set aside for sale as remainders or waste. This process is charmingly named “hurting a book”. Many of the books on sale on Broadway show obvious signs of “hurt”, so doubtless didn’t come off that famous truck. I suspect that many a carton destined for the shredder ends up in this shadowy remainder-of-remainders market. There are also enough unsold books legitimately swilling around in the system that someone has probably worked out how to make a small profit off them by offering them for sale in the street.

We once had a young man working for us who would spend his lunch hour in Central Park with a few books he’d lifted from the office spread out on a towel in front of him. When he was fired I wondered if he shouldn’t have been watched, and if he proved able to sell any of the rather abstruse volumes he’d taken, promoted to a sales position.

You do not need a license to sell books, newspapers, magazines, CDs or art on the street — your right to do so is guaranteed by the First Amendment. You will have to abide by New York City’s regulations (and no doubt the objections of your competitors) as to where you may put your table, and you’ll need a State Tax ID. At least on a dry day, neither too cold nor too hot, it looks like it could be a pleasant life. Here’s a video of Charles Mysak who keeps his book-filled car parked in the same spot all the time at Columbus and 68th feeding the meter as required. It’s an interesting story, and a nicely made film.

Simon Akam did a piece for Intelligent Life a few years ago in which he analyzed the most popular titles offered for sale on the streets around New York. He doesn’t disclose how the supply-chain is able to respond so quickly to demand surges.

By way of contrast, here is a story from Hazlitt Magazine by Aeman Ansari (delivered by The Passive Voice) which tells of a book vendor in Karachi.