On a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon, the corner of West 73rd Street and Broadway is a pinwheel of colors. Men and women hurriedly walk by, iPhones, Zabar’s bags and Starbucks cups in tow. Some scurry into the Chase bank while others wander into the sample sale being held in the adjacent space.
As the sounds of Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” pour from a nearby speaker set, Kirk Davidson, 51, nods along to the beat, his foot tapping in time. Clad in a red, white and blue track suit, his eyes hidden behind dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, Davidson is seated in a plush armchair, the tables on either side of him covered in layers of books.
Davidson is an Upper West Side fixture. For 23 years, he’s sold books, old magazines and vinyl on the same corner—an enterprise that’s sometimes extended more than a city block and occasionally employed additional people. Depending on whom you ask, he’s either a holdover from the neighborhood’s intellectual and affordable distant past, or a blight on an otherwise quiet stretch of sidewalk.
By his own admission, Davidson has received more than 125 citations from the Police Department’s 20th Precinct over the years. The offenses range from taking up too many feet of sidewalk and sleeping in public to, more recently—and seriously—allegations of stealing another vendor’s books, and wielding a knife during an argument, a charge that Davidson vehemently denies. The recent charges have spurred a renewed effort to move the vendor.
“I can truly say that for at least the past 10 years, I don’t think we’ve had one meeting where people have not complained about Kirk,” said Sam Katz, president of the 20th Precinct Community Council. “Kirk is a permanent encampment. In order for him to be okay in this neighborhood, he needs to limit his operation to one table. He can’t be a slob. He can’t live on the sidewalk.”
Of course, technically, Davidson can. There are currently no laws mandating the hours during which vendors are allowed to peddle their wares. No law requires that he pack up his books and leave the corner each night. If Katz has her way, however, that will change. She has been working closely with Council Member Gale Brewer to codify vending laws.
In September 2008, Brewer introduced legislation mandating that no vendor leave his goods unattended for more than 30 minutes, and that goods not be left in any public space when the vendor isn’t “actively engaged in vending.” Brewer said it’s not a coincidence that the legislation seems targeted specifically at Davidson.
“We’ve been working on this situation for about four years now,” Brewer said. “It’s not new for us. What we need to do with any legislation is figure out a way where you can’t just leave unattended books on the street overnight. It’s wrong to leave things overnight, and there are plenty of good examples not far from Kirk of how vendors do things right. In fact, the only book vendor I’ve ever gotten a complaint about is Kirk.”
Not everyone, even among neighborhood residents, sees Davidson as a problem, though.
“Frankly, I’d be very unhappy if he weren’t there,” said Tulsi Reynolds, who lives on West 74th Street, and said she regularly buys books from Davidson. “I’m on my way to the park, and I just bought a Donald Westlake book from him for $2. He’s a nice resource with everything so expensive.”
For his part, Davidson is both aggressive and defensive when it comes to his situation. He argues racism, alludes to slavery and says his problems with police only began when he started dating a white woman in 1997. He says in a perfect world, he wouldn’t have to deal with police, but that he wants to make it in the Guinness Book of World Records for suing the 20th Precinct.
Fully reclined in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him, he holds court on economics, which, at its core, is what his 23 years on West 73rd Street are about.
“I’m just trying to make a living,” he said. “If I could do it with one table, I’d do it. I live in a shelter, but I’m not on welfare. These people don’t know what it’s like to scuffle. The reason I work seven days a week, the reason I’m here late at night, is because I have to be here that much to make a week’s salary and make rent. It’s about making a living.”
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