Booked Up

Selling his novel on the streets of Houston got Abram Himelstein in trouble. He's ready to give as good as he got.

Abram Himelstein can read people. It's a skill he has honed traveling around the country hawking his 'zine-like alterna-primer, Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, in a massive person-to-person marketing campaign. The 29-year-old former Houston public schoolteacher looks for the kids with green hair and Doc Martens and punk band T-shirts at the indie coffeehouses and dark clubs and used record stores where they hang out. These are the people who will be interested in what Himelstein and his book, co-authored by Jamie Schweser, have to say about the establishment, the man, the patriarchy, the system and, of course, the punk tenet of rebellion against all those things. Himelstein has sold about 7,000 copies of his book since self-publishing it in 1998, half on the street and half through more conventional channels.

But he mostly misjudged the crowd that was lined up outside Compaq Center on the night of June 5, waiting for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters show. "They didn't grow up listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers 15 years ago, you know, when they were naked and radical," he laments. "They're really into them because now they're on MTV singing ballads." But all was not lost. Himelstein spotted a kid wearing an Anti-Flag shirt -- as punk as punk gets. True to form, the Anti-Flag kid was, as Himelstein puts it, "into it," and he forked over $8 for a copy of the book. Himelstein's next potential customer, however, was not into it. He was an undercover police officer, outside Compaq Center hoping to catch ticket scalpers. Himelstein could tell right away: "He has a Magnum P.I. mustache and he's wearing a Hawaiian shirt." As the confrontational punk-rock fates would have it, the first page the officer turned to was a 'zine article written by the main character of the novel, a Jewish teenager from Tennessee who makes a place for himself among the militant vegans, political musicians and riot grrrls of Washington, D.C., in the early '90s. The article was called "Making People Understand Why I Think Cops Fucking Suck."

"You could see his face just go," says Himelstein. Then the two of them had quite possibly the most bizarre civilian-cop conversation in recent concert history, with the officer asking Himelstein why he wrote that article and Himelstein telling the officer "how the police's job is often just to enforce the laws of the people with power and not necessarily to protect and serve and how that unfortunately creates the situation where people with good intentions end up enforcing really gross laws." But neither party found the other's arguments persuasive, and soon the bookseller was being marched through the crowd and into Compaq Center so he could be given a citation and processed. Turns out that Himelstein "did then and there unlawfully and knowingly offer for sale, to wit: books, without a valid itinerant vendor's license issued by the city tax assessor-collector."

Punk rock something: Abram Himelstein bucks the system.
Punk rock something: Abram Himelstein bucks the system.

When he had received his citation, which carries a possible $350 fine, Himelstein went back to the lawn at Compaq Center to address the crowd. "You should thank the police," he screamed, "because they're protecting you from books. They're real dangerous, and if they were in your hands, it'd be bad." The cops let him shout for nearly an hour before threatening to charge him with criminal trespass. After an hour, Himelstein was done anyway.

But that won't be the last time the Houston Police Department hears from him. Himelstein, after all, is a punk, and punks don't take things lying down. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he's hoping not only to get out of the fine but also, and more important, to get the city ordinance regarding itinerant vendors declared unconstitutional. To Texas ACLU President Greg Gladden and Fulbright & Jaworski associate Hannah Liebman, Himelstein's case is an important First Amendment issue. "The function of the First Amendment is to allow views to be expressed -- all views," says Liebman, who is working on the case pro bono in association with the ACLU, "and when you have a situation where somebody's viewpoint may be suppressed either by virtue of the law itself or the way it's enforced, that's sort of an obvious problem."

But does the First Amendment give Himelstein the right to sell his books without paying licensing fees? Himelstein and his lawyers say yes. The itinerant vendor's license costs $50 for 40 days; you must purchase it ten days before you use it and be bonded for $2,000. Himelstein calculates the final cost to be about $500 to $600 a year. "Selling books in Houston, the way I do it," he says, "I would not even make enough to cover the license, which essentially prohibits me from getting my words and views across." And the antiestablishment, do-it-yourself way that he sells, and publishes, his books is just as important to Himelstein as what they say inside. "I mean, it was good enough for Walt Whitman," he says. "That's what the dude did. He walked around the country selling copies of his book of poetry.He would have been arrested in Houston."

Liebman and Gladden argue that books are different from other products that vendors sell on the street; books are speech materials and therefore should not be regulated by onerous municipal codes. There is some precedent to their idea: Newspapers are exempt from the city ordinance requiring itinerant vendors to be licensed (strangely, so are frozen desserts). "But when you look at what happened to Abram," says Liebman, "the police were able to ask him questions about the content of his book and then apply the stricture of this provision.That's not a business issue anymore, even if it's meant to be."

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