There will be a notable absence on Bogart Street, near the Morgan L stop, this summer. Anyone who has passed the cafes, bars, and vintage shops of the area in the last five years should remember the vendors selling books and records on the sidewalk. These vendors considered themselves a fixture of the community until late March, when police issued at least one court summons for vending without a license and forced operations to cease.
“There’s essentially four vendors that form the core,” says Frank Rispoli, a designer and photographer from Bay Ridge, who became close friends with the group and spent significant time on Bogart, though he never sold wares himself.
Two of the vendors spoke with Bushwick Daily about what happened. There is Tony, originally from Bensonhurst and now living in Rockaway, with his soul patch and thick Brooklyn accent. Tony sells books, records, art, and miscellaneous items.
Then there’s David, referred to by his comrades as Diablo. Diablo, whose court hearing is scheduled for late May, sells books, and as Rispoli explained, “Not just any old books. He’s got the literary cross-section, like a library from Columbia’s graduate school. I’m amazed at what he sells. And people come by, looking for specific books, and if he doesn’t have them he’ll go out and find them.”
It’s this sense of contributing to the community, that these three talk about far more than vending as their livelihood. They take pride in their position as neighborhood staples. “I’m sure a lot of neighborhood people have been asking for us and wondering what happened to us,” says Tony.
Book selling, in fact selling many kinds of art, is legal in New York City without a General Street Vendor License. Those items fall under the purview of the First Amendment, and selling them is considered protected free speech. However, shakeups of vendors are common, even when they aren’t breaking any laws.
In the case of the Bogart Street group, the reason behind their disbanding appears to be a complaint from a neighbor. Diablo describes his encounter with the police: “Weeks prior, there was extra pressure, police cars cruising by, slowing down, and watching us. Eventually a couple of sergeants rolled up, got out, and asked for a vending license. They asked for IDs and checked for warrants, then said pack your stuff and get out. I said that I’m a book vendor and that I’m following the rules. They said it doesn’t matter, you got a complaint, we’re shutting you down.”
Tony confirmed that within a couple days, while selling nearby, he was approached by the police and told that they’d received a complaint. When asked if there had been tension with the police before that, he replied, “Never, ever, ever.”
“We have a great relationship with our neighbors. Sometimes they even ask us to help out if they have stuff they want to sell, and we help them sell whatever they want. That happens almost every time I’m out here.” He adds that they are often the first point of contact for people getting off the train in Bushwick, giving directions to tourists and recommending shops and restaurants.
Diablo talks fondly of his regulars, with whom he has a close relationship. “After I leave here I’m going to pick up one of my clients from surgery,” he says. “I’m not trying to sound like some saint, that’s just what it is. If you get to know people, you become part of the makeup of the community. That’s what’s hard to walk away from—it takes years to build that.”
Rispoli, Diablo, and Tony all agree that the Bogart vendors do their best to give back to tourists, residents, and local businesses. Even the police, they say, used to spend time talking and joking with them. “Never questioned us, never asked about licenses. They would just be friendly,” says Tony. Bushwick Daily reached out to the NYPD for additional details regarding this case, and we will update this piece when we receive a response.
Street vending in New York City involves constant risk, and those who do it become experts at analyzing the potential costs and benefits. Tony is considering going out still. “If the weather clears up, I might set up over here today,” he says. “Just because it’s a horrible, rainy day. If the cops come and tell me to leave, it won’t be a great loss today.”
Diablo, who, unlike Tony, received a summons and who supports a daughter is forced to be more conservative in his actions. “If I go back out there and they see I have a case pending, they could take it a step further. I can’t go to jail for even a few hours. I just have to stay away from the neighborhood.”
Despite that risk, it’s easy to see how Frank, Tony, and Diablo long to get back onto Bogart Street. Later on, standing on the sidewalk where they once sold their goods, they reminisce about the ways in which they tried to bring an air of festivity to their jobs. Diablo talks about poetry readings he would host from his stand and how he even once had an author come by for a book signing. Tony remembers the astrologer he had reading horoscopes, and the musicians he would invite to play as he sold.
It’s not clear whether the police will continue to crack down on vendors along Bogart. At least in the near future, however, the group of four won’t be complete. Alan Crosby, another vendor and a veteran of the Iraq War who was previously written about in Bushwick Daily, has returned to his home state of Florida.
Diablo, for his part, is optimistic about his court summons but acknowledges the difficulties of his lifestyle. “I’m going to court in the end of May, and I have a lawyer coming with me. He represents book sellers in New York. I’m not worried about paying the fine because I know they’re going to drop the charges, but it’s just a hassle to get shut down for months. You still have to eat.”
Yet he remains steadfast in his view that street vendors are necessary to keep the neighborhood vibrant and alive. “We’re a bunch of ragtags, who don’t want to work a nine to five under fluorescent lighting. Take all those people out of New York City, and what’s left?”
Featured image: Tony’s table on Bogart Street courtesy of Frank Rispoli.