An Interview with Long Time Book Stand Vendor Charles J. Mysak

Charles J. Mysak

Charles Mysak is an Upper West Side legend. His bookstand sits between 67th and 68th Streets on Columbus Avenue and has been running for over 20 years with little interruption. The NYTimes wrote two profiles about him over the years, first in 2005 and again in 2010.

Mysak also famously kept the same parking spot on the corner 68th and Columbus for 11 years, using his car as a book storage unit. The man embodies that classic NYC spirit of grit, scrappiness and tenacity, with a fond appreciation for the arts at large. We’re lucky to have him.

Charles had to break down his stand for a little while at the beginning of the pandemic. When he returned at the beginning of May, I welcomed him back and purchased Steely Dan’s “The Royal Scam” on vinyl for my dad, and then picked up a stapled 7 page document titled “When the Servants Become the Masters,” which Mysak wrote to discuss the state of the city, some politics and his own family history. It’s an honor he agreed to do his first ever long form interview with me.

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Here’s the video, or you can check out the transcription below.

Below is the written transcription of our interview. We’ve made some edits and removed certain sections to make it easier to read, though you still may find the audio version much easier to follow …

So Charles, I’ve been living right nearby for over ten years now and for as long as I’ve been here I’ve been a fan and a patron of your book stand. How long have you been at this location, 67th and Columbus?

More than 20 years.

Were you ever working a bookstand anywhere else?

Yeah, when I began I actually had a stand I liked. The Strand had a stand on Park on 5th Avenue between 62nd and 64th Street so I went a little further down and set up a stand on that side of the park. That was back when New York, they still had what was called ‘New York is Book Country.’ They would actually close down parts of 5th Avenue and let publishers and book dealers, children’s books, all kinds of books, it was quite an affair. Of course, they haven’t done that in decades, unfortunately. But that’s where I originally set up.

And then of course the first day I was there, maybe the 2nd, I set up blankets on the ground because I thought that was the best way to display the books so you could actually see the dust jackets, see the title of the book as opposed to the way it is here which is pretty much just looking at the binding. And I had a tremendous crowd, I was amazed, about 6 or 7 thousand and I said, “Wow, it’s going to be a great day.” So, after I set the whole stand up these 6 or 7 guys came up to me and said, “We’re from the police department and you’re not allowed to set up a bookstand on Park.” And I said, “Well jeez, nice of you to tell me now that I’ve set it all up.”

So, from there I went to the Museum of Natural History. That took me over to the West Side and, of course, after a while they chased me from there. I went across the street and decided to come a little further downtown here. It was the summer at that point and it was hot.

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Summer of what year, do you remember?

97’, 98’. There were trees and shade so I said, “there’s a wine store, post office;” at first I actually thought I’d set up in front of the post office and then, uh, at that time these trees that you see now were very small and had no shade, so I came over here. Been here ever since.

It’s great to have you here. I hope you don’t go anywhere else. I always feel like you’re part of the neighborhood.

People in the neighborhood don’t think I’m part of the neighborhood, which explains 20 years of hostility to the stand, and why we end up in the United States District Court.

I’m happy to tell you, Charles, I was at a meeting at the Church of Latter-Day Saints last Thursday. It was a local police precinct meeting where people from the community come together to talk about crime and things going on in the neighborhood. Somebody actually brought you up in that meeting, which had me stand up and say that you were part of the fabric of the community. The police said that you’re a great guy, very reasonable, and swell.

[laughs] Which officer said that?

I’ll get their names. I have them in my cell phone.

Was it the captain? It wasn’t the caption, was it? I’ve survived six or seven captains. What was the nature of the comment?

It was a woman who said that you have four tables, and you’re only allowed to have one.

Isn’t that nice?

Isn’t that nice? (Smiling)

You should have told her to take off her mask and take a look around the city and take a look at what they have done here. I think they have a lot more to worry about than my four tables. They can basically put a toe-tag on the city of New York. They have destroyed the city. The city is DOA. And frankly, contrary to some popular opinion, it ain’t coming back for a long, long time. If it comes back at all, it will take a tremendous reversal of a certain mentality that does not understand what makes a city run. And what makes a city run are people like me, and the 10,000 other vendors whose livelihoods have been destroyed not by the virus, but by the arrogance of those in power who think that they have the authority – they do have the authority – the question becomes do they have the law for the authority to destroy people’s livelihoods. And the destruction of those livelihoods and the destruction of those jobs, the destruction of those lives, those families, they occur – the way they occur – those who are the loudest in terms of their proclamation of how they stand for the working man, and I include Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, I include Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama…they were silent. The silence was deafening. One of the reasons that I wrote When the Servants Become the Masters is I had been home at that point for about 2 1/2 months, until May, almost 2 months, and I had to listen every day for almost six hours…first Gov. Cuomo then Gov. Murphy, and Mayor de Blasio…and six hours every day pounded in the necessity or actually what they called, I had the luxury, of staying home, and that offended me very greatly.

And your shop was closed for a period of time, right?

Well not only that; actually, the very day before they declared the emergency, they thought it was important enough to have the police come and take my stand, so they actually destroyed the stand, so I came back in May and reconstructed my stand and have been here ever since.

I heard you were once a lawyer previously to working at the stand? Because I hear you’ve done remarkably getting your books back after they confiscated them from you.

It’s quite a process actually. It’s a really interesting process. People should be made aware of it.

Please. I’d love to hear it.

I actually looked at your pictures, your photographs. You took photographs. Thank goodness you did, because it was very helpful to me in terms of identifying who participates in these things.

[I also took this video]:

I have the highest regards for members of the police department. I had helped them. [But] first you have to understand something; book vendors are not the enemies of the city.

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Especially you!

Not just me though, street vendors generally. All of the urbanologists, from Jane Jacobs to White [and] a couple of other guys had written about the fact that – and this is a fact – that the more street vendors [there are], the safer the city. Because more street vendors actually reflect that [they] understand that there are enough people here to support a vending business, which by the way is no longer the case. But the vendors understand that and the vendors have an interest, a direct interest, an immediate interest in having a safe environment. So, when things happen vendors take note. Of course, the evolution of this neighborhood is interesting. Years ago there was a Reebok across the street.

Everyday some guy would come and he would station himself. At that time we didn’t have a bicycle lane so it was parked cars. He would hide behind parked cars [and] he would observe the Reebok store. When the sales people moved to the back of the store he would run across the street, go through the front door and grab as much as he could and run out. And one of the local detectives came by, and we told him “This guy is a regular” so he says the next time you see him give me a call, which we did. And before you know it this guy comes running out with his 10 shirts and about 10 cops jump on him. Plain clothes cops, the kinds of cops they don’t like to have anymore. And they did their job. They didn’t beat the guy up. I’m sure the guy was released after he got his short slap of the noodle, and they succeeded in thwarting what was a very profitable bootlegging operation. And [it wasn’t just me] who was instrumental, but [also] my vendor mate here from Senegal. We’ve been together [for] 20 years and he was instrumental at that time. I didn’t even have a cell phone, so he was the one who called the detectives.

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I was going to ask, because sometimes I’ve noticed when you’re not here, there’s another gentleman who looks over the stand. What was his name again?

Dame Gueye.

Where’s Dame from?

Senegal.

What about now?

He’s back in Senegal. He’ll probably be back in January.

I hope to see him again soon. Where do you live these days?

I live in Bloomingdale, New Jersey. I was born in Brooklyn, lived in Sheepshead Bay. I lived in Bayside, Queens. I consider myself a New Yorker through and through because I used to be here from 5 in the morning to 11 o’clock at night…so that pretty much qualifies me as a neighborhood guy.

So when you were working as a lawyer, what inspired you to make the transition to working in books?

It wasn’t my idea, so if you want to go through the history of my disbarment, which is a rather unique story in and of itself, we’ll go into it, but I don’t think today is a particularly good day to do that.

In any event, however it happened, I really was left with no other choice. Book knowledge had always been a passion of mine, and I had at that point in time about 400,000 volumes of books because I thought that was going to be a good idea. Before Amazon existed, while I was still practicing, I used to go to an old shop in Trenton, probably the last bookstore in Trenton. It was called Acres of Books, two stories high, on State Street, and I used to go there every day. There was an old professor from the University of Pennsylvania, retired, and his store was unique in the sense that [it was] really old fashioned [and] he didn’t have book cases. He had fruit crates, and these fruit crates were from California in the 30s. Real old, real crates with all the illustrations on them and everything else, and inside the crates he would have books stacked. A remarkable store.

And one day I passed by [and it was] closed. I had never seen the store closed, and the next day there’s a sign saying “Sale.” Apparently, the professor had passed away [and] his son inherited the store. As happens with people who are passionate about books, many times their children don’t want to have much to do with [them]. Well, this guy was interested in getting rid of the books, and he made me an offer which I could not as a book lover refuse, which was essentially “you take the books and you can have them … just get them out of here.”

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What’s been your strategy? I’m sure you don’t want to reveal too many of your tricks … but I’ve always noticed the collection expands, and you’ve included vinyl. How do you usually go about …

I have scouts that travel the city looking for books. There’s probably more books on the island of Manhattan than anywhere in the world, and so it’s a fertile area for discovery. And it’s tragic when you see books literally thrown away.

Just left outside sometimes?

Abandoned to the elements. Many times they end up in the garbage which is a real tragedy because a lot of the books are worthwhile, for young students, physicians, all kinds of people. I saw all kinds of books. So that’s one source, but the ultimate source in the end – and this is what I’ve tried to emphasize to people – the ultimate source in the end is the neighborhood. This is the single most generous neighborhood in the entire world when it comes to donating books. And people all say the same thing: “I hope it goes to somebody who appreciates them” – which generally is the case, if they don’t end in a police property depot, but they will always come to you and say “I can’t throw them out, I can’t throw them away,” which is wise – and they shouldn’t, so they bring them here. So my stand always survives, because the neighborhood votes with their feet and brings the books here. So, it expands. And you see it; it’s expanding dramatically right here, because what you unfortunately see is a lot of donations and not many customers.

So, when that happens you get an expansion, and hopefully it’s for the good and the books that come are worthwhile. I have so many friends here I’ve made over the years. All kinds of people. The regular folk, professors, poets, actors, actresses. I get celebrities, Robert Klein, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, but they aren’t the most important people. The most important people are just the regular people who walk by and say hello and [ask how I’m doing] and all the rest. Whenever they see the stand, if the stand has been demolished or taken away, they will restock it.

Do you have some favorite titles that you’ve read over the years?

I like Frederick Exley. Frederick Exley is a New York writer [who] wrote a book called A Fan’s Notes, and he wrote Pages From A Cold Island and one other book. He was an alcoholic in Watertown, New York, but he had extraordinary insight into what makes a city run, what makes human beings run. So I enjoy him. He’s relatively hard to come by. I’d call him now a rather obscure writer, but those who have read him like him passionately, almost a cult of Frederick Exley readers. That’s one. Of course I like Ernest Hemingway. Of course you can’t, as far as I’m concerned, beat The Old Man and The Sea, a guy who goes out in a boat for 83 days and catches nothing, using the same technique because he knows it’s good and he knows he’s good, and catches the biggest fish that anybody’s ever caught. So for me that shows a lot. Nobility. Tenacity. All the things you need to live a life in this city or for that matter anywhere else.

Are you a fan of music? 

Oh yes.

Could you right now pick a song that you think summarizes New York City during the pandemic? 

[Laughs] Yeah that would be a dirge. I’m not gonna pick a dirge. I happened to go onto Google and I came across a song by Master KG called “Jerusalema”. I started listening to it and I’m 70 years old and I couldn’t help but start dancing to it.

Hell yeah. What was the name of that again?

Jerusalema. Master KG. Young African singer, woman. Sings a song. It’s a wonderful song. I’d recommend to any New York person. It does capture the spirit of the city. It makes you move, and that’s what the city is all about. I remember when I was 7 years old I came into Manhattan for the first time from Brooklyn. At that time in Brooklyn, the highest structure I ever saw on 21st street were 3 story buildings, like apartment buildings, block apartments and that kind of thing. Then you’d walk through the Port Authority, came out and there was a diner and the sun was shining brightly. It was cold. It was brisk. And I looked up and I just couldn’t believe it, I was floored.

And then I looked down, and it was like an undulating stream of people. It was like an ocean of people. And I’m a little guy, I [was] 7 years old at the time. Then I looked at the traffic. It was an undulating stream of traffic, and cars. There was nothing like it. That’s New York. Not what you see today. But that’s the city. If people really want to do themselves some good, aside from listening to Jerusalema, you should watch films, because New York has been captured in [so many] films.

You should watch ‘Working Girl’. Watch the beginning of Working Girl. Which also takes off on Let The Rivers Run by Carlie Simon. I think that’s her best song. And if you watch that, you see the people on the ferry. We’re not talking about social distancing. We’re talking about the city. And we’re talking about people coming off. People walking. The sheer humanity of it. The verve of it. That’s who we are. Watch the movie ‘A Thousand Clowns’ with Jason Robards. [In] the beginning of that movie he says “you’re gonna see a terrible thing” and a little boy goes “what’s that?” People going to work. Music starts, and you see the city come to life. I’ve been here at 5 or 6 in the morning when it starts, or [when it used to start], and it’s a remarkable scene. But what it shows you is that a city, in order to survive, must have people. It must have commerce, it must have business, it must have all the things that the governor of this state decided were not essential and in fact, that is the most essential thing about the city of New York. And we owe that not only to the living but the next generations to come.

Our living, L’Chaim, is the word, is a tribute to the dead. Tradition is a democracy of the dead. Jack Kennedy said, “What’s the use of maintaining our lives if we don’t maintain our traditions?” And that’s our job. Our job is to keep the city functioning. Our job is not to shut it in and lock it up. Freedom built New York and the absence of freedom will kill it, is killing it and may have just killed it.

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Yeah, I wanted to end on this note. There’s been a lot of back and forth in the media about New York City and its heartbeat. Is New York City dead? I’m standing here with you right now, Charles, and I don’t think it’s dead. I think there’s a road ahead for us. Do you think it’s dead?

Yes, it’s dead. Want me to take a walk around the neighborhood with you to show you?

Yeah, let’s check it out.

I should be over here to watch the books, but I don’t have to worry because nobody’s taking them.

[We walked to the corner of 68th and Columbus and he pointed towards 68th and Broadway]

You walk up to the corner. You’ll see the great liberals who run this city. They mock the concept of trickle-down economics.

Oh, from Reagan.

Oh, trickle down trickle down, what a terrible thing.

(Laughing)

Well let me show you what trickle down is to a vendor. Take a walk up to the [AMC Lincoln Square] theater. It’s boarded up.

Yup.

That means that the people who make the movies don’t make any money.

They’re going through some tough times.

That’s right. They’re losing money. People used to come to the stand after watching films. And [if] you go across the street over there, it’s been vacant for two years, Lowe’s – the hardware store. I may be the last of the Mohicans on this block besides the wine store and the pharmacy. They’re gone. They’re gone and they ain’t coming back.

There’s a Just Salad that’s going to be opening over up over here…it’s a chain store that’s what’s rolling in. 

You’ve got Century 21, now you might knock Century 21. Century 21 employed hundreds of people, thousands of people went there every day to shop, and those people get hungry and they go outside. You see the vendor that’s out there? Maybe he’d have 1000 customers a day. Today, there used to be a line every time I went there, today I’ll go there and there will be nobody. Nobody. The same thing for the hamburger guy. The same thing for the empanada lady. Same thing for me. So, I go from making maybe $100 a day, if I’m lucky, to making $10. Alright? You can’t survive on $10. So the trickle down is essential. It shouldn’t be mocked. When stores close, businesses close, the people who inhabit and work in those places aren’t here to buy anything, not clothing or food or books or anything else. You destroy that, you encourage people to stay away, wear masks, don’t go near anybody, you destroy a city. And that’s not hundreds of thousands of lives. That’s millions of lives.

Well I hope that we continue to see you on this corner alive and well for many years to come Charles. I appreciate your service, and I appreciate your time talking to me. Let’s go check out your vinyl. 

I don’t have any vinyl out today! Too cold!

Upper West Side Book Stand

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