Almost Banned But Still in Business

    Kenny and Frenchie, seated on a pair of canvas camp chairs, hunker on the sidewalk along Massachusetts Ave. in Harvard Square. The couple is accompanied by a large pushcart laden with a heap of sundried items, including their dog Penny and cat Charlie, who observe the passing crowds with tranquil indifference. The experienced and traveled pair may not adhere to the conventional vision of businesspeople. Yet they have nevertheless carved a unique niche for themselves with a second-hand, sidewalk book business that has proven competitive amidst the cluster of famed neighborhood bookstores such as the COOP and the Harvard Book Store.

This story begins three years ago when Kenny was arrested for selling books without a permit. Now, amid an ongoing fight with City Hall, and although still officially unauthorized, Almost Banned in Harvard Square Book Sellers is back in business.

The legal history of Harvard Square’s rouge literary outlet dates to the beginning of the summer of 2006. At this point, according to a synopsis provided by proprietor Kenny—full name Kenneth A. O’Brien—a series of arrests led to an animosity-provoking battle with the city of Cambridge that continues to be waged along Mass Ave. today.

In the summer of 2006, a series of events occurred. First, a vendor employed by Almost Banned was arrested and a judge ruled that the business legally required a Peddlers’ Permit to operate. According to Kenny, at this point he tried to obtain the permit from the Superintendent of Streets and Sidewalks but some confusion on the part of the City meant that he left empty handed. So Kenny flaunted the regulation, reopening the bookstore. He was promptly arrested.

After his release, Kenny reports that he once again tried to apply for a Peddlers’ Permit, yet again left empty handed when the Superintendent told him that the permit was not available at the time. To further complicate matters, Kenny says that he later received a call from the City Solicitor “Informing me that the City of Cambridge opinion is wrong, and I would need more than a Peddlers’ Permit to sell books.”

Finally, after much confusion and frustration—likely felt by both sides—Almost Banned in Harvard Sq. Booksellers was granted both a Peddlers’ Permit and a Business Certificate on September 21, 2006, replete with a hand-scrawled map detailing the parameters of the bookstore, penned by the Superintendent of Streets and Sidewalks himself. The permit allotted Kenny space in front of 1324 Mass Ave., near the corner of Holyoke St. At this point Kenny joined the Harvard Square Business Association and Almost Banned became legitimized.

Yet the achievement of the permit failed to signify the end of Almost Banned’s troubles. For instance, at one point between 2006 and 2009, Kenny applied for and was accepted to office space located in the basement of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, where the headquarters of Spare Change News is also located. The church required that Kenny have liability insurance for his business, but when he approached an agent he was told that the agent’s company “could not handle” the request. Subsequent efforts to locate other agencies yielded no results. So, due to the lack of insurance coverage the opportunity to move in to Old Cambridge Baptist ended.

In a yet another curious fold in the history of Almost Banned in Harvard Sq., Kenny reports that during one attempt to renew the Peddlers’ Permit he was surprised to discover that it had been downgraded to a Sidewalk Obstruction Permit, putting in question the legal status of his Business Certificate. In a written history of the bookstore, Kenny writes that at this point, “I was doing business and had little fight left so I accepted it and felt I had no other choice.”

Later that same summer—in 2008—a group of MBTA Transit Police officers swarmed the Almost Banned stand and apparently threatened Kenny with arrest because his operations were obstructing a subway ventilation grate in the sidewalk in front of 1324 Mass Ave. In frustration, Kenny recalls that the location on top of the grate was the exact spot specified on the map drawn by the Superintendent of Streets and Sidewalks in 2006. After an extended conversation with a Cambridge police officer it was agreed that if the stand were relocated to the side of where the map located the stand, then the Cambridge Police would never again bother Kenny.

But as in the past, compromise with City officials did not spell an end to the difficulties faced by Kenny and his partner Frenchie. When an opportunity arose to obtain space for a bookstore in East Cambridge in late 2008, Kenny again knew that he would need to seek liability insurance and therefore sought to resolve the issue of the legality of his Business Certificate, which was initially threatened by the change of his Peddlers’ Permit to a Sidewalk Obstruction Permit. According to Kenny, he made about 20 attempts to contact various City of Cambridge officials to verify the legality of his Business Certificate. In the end, he was told that it was indeed legal, but by that point frustration had already gotten the better of Kenny.

During the winter of 2009, Kenny and Frenchie decided to close their business. Between the months of January, February and March they gave away approximately 40,000 books for free. At the standard price of $2 per book, the net worth that these texts could have garnered for Almost Banned would be $80,000.

The closure of Almost Banned in the winter of 2009 was precipitated by a sense of disillusionment and disenfranchisement that Kenny felt. He recalls that “I wanted to be away from people and in the mountains because I felt the laws of this country would not protect me.”

Yet after much conversation with close confidants, Kenny decided to reengage in his business, and by extension in the contest with the City. This time he is determined to maintain the operations of Almost Banned with or without the sanctions of Cambridge officials. An August 17, 2009 contact with the City Solicitor left Kenny with a clear impression of his stance with the local government. During this exchange, the Solicitor apparently told Kenny that since he had no contact information—that is, since he is homeless—he would not even be eligible for a Business Certificate. On his past certificate application Kenny got around this regulation by listing a P.O. Box Frenchie held at the time. While it remains to be seen what the official status of Almost Banned will be, it is clear that Kenny and Frenchie are determined to conduct business, though they have been told that they will be stopped.

Obviously, the current relationship between Almost Banned and City Hall is tainted by the complicated history that the two share, and it is nearly certain that the frustration—born out of perceived rigidity—that Kenny feels towards his adversary is mutual. But while some of the story may be muddled, it is patent that Kenny, Frenchie, and their pets, paraphernalia, and books are mainstays of the street scene that enchants Harvard Sq.

During a meeting in the couple’s habitual location in front of 1324 Mass Ave. prior to the September 3, 2009 ‘Grand Re-opening’ of Almost Banned, Kenny and Frenchie offered opinions about the world locally and their place within it. Kenny spoke about the history of his fight with City Hall and his anticipation of an impending arrest when the store re-opened. “A homeless person trying to improve his situation is going to meet more resistance than anyone,” he opined.

Evidently jaded by his experience, Kenny decried the System’s typical role in the lives of homeless individuals. He compared state assistance to a drug, in the sense that aid fosters a kind of dependency in its beneficiaries. “If you wanna play the game, get $700 a month [in Supplementary Security Income], they’ll help you with that, not if you wanna get up off of your feet,” Kenny noted. He emphasized the need not only to passively provide assistance for people, but also to retrain and rehabilitate them.

In essence, Kenny and Frenchie are talking about empowerment. Such a mission is encapsulated in a business plan that Kenny submitted to the Cambridge Microfinance Initiative, where he has previously taken business classes. The plan involved several portable tables to be set up around the Greater Boston area, one small permanent store, and a website for online bookselling. According to the prospectus of the plan, all staff would be homeless/low-income, sub-contracted, and self-employed. It is a business model reminiscent of the framework employed by street newspapers and other similar businesses worldwide.

While the realization of Kenny’s ultimate vision will have to wait until Almost Banned’s fight with City Hall is resolved, it is clear that at least he and Frenchie have been empowered by the bookstand. During the recent hour-long interview, several people stop to chat about specific books, several others snap photos of the couple and their pets, and drop off food.

Kenny explains that because some strangers think he’s an alcoholic or a drug addict (he’s neither), they prefer to donate food rather than money. Ironically, the couple is so popular that they occasionally receive dozens of meals per day. They say they always pass food along to people on the street that are in relatively greater need. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for which locals have dubbed Kenny and Frenchie the ‘Mom and Pop of the Street.’

It is fitting that just as Kenny and Frenchie coordinate a sort of informal support network for the homeless of Harvard Sq., so are they supported by local individuals and businesses, including the owners and employees of Leavitt and Pierce, J.P. Licks, J. August, all of which are adjacent to Almost Banned. A number of Harvard professors endorse the bookstand, and it has been the subject of several photo shoots, news stories, and creative writing pieces.

In his energetic, candid, and wistful manner, Kenny succinctly sums up the sentiment: “If we as humans give up on other humans, basically we’re giving up on ourselves.” In an era of corporatization, globalization of the marketplace, and perhaps decreased human contact, at least one Mom and Pop business refuses to give up.

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