Spare Change News
Have you ever noticed the second-hand bookstand in Cambridge on the sidewalk in front of 1324 Massachusetts Ave., near Holyoke Street? Not just glanced and continued walking, but truly observed it? Next time you find yourself walking along Massachusetts Avenue, debating whether or not to enter Harvard Book Store or grab a burrito from Qdoba, stop at the bookstand between those two enticing locations.
At first you might see the blue plastic tarp and disregard the stand as a stopping place. A closer examination of the tarp reveals the business’ name, “Almost Banned in Harvard Square Booksellers.” Look again, though, and note the thousands of books neatly filed in carefully crafted wooden shelves and specially selected milk crates — but a small selection of what the owner has to offer.
At the front of this seemingly small enterprise stands a cardboard sign; it once read “$2 books,” but now exclaims “Free Books!” Next to the stand or against the opposing building face you very well may have the pleasure of seeing the owner, if not at least one of his employees.
The enterpriser is Kenneth O’Brien, 58, more affectionately just known as Ken. After most of three decades spent hitch-hiking, riding freight trains, and living the homeless life, Ken returned to his native Cambridge and looked for a feasible way to support his family — his dog Penny, cat Charlie, and the partner he lovingly refers to as “Frenchie,” He started selling books at his current location in June 2006, and now, after years of squabbling with city officials and police over a peddler’s permit, sidewalk obstruction, and his First Amendment right to distribute printed material, Ken says he’s thinking – and not for the first time – of giving all his books away and closing the Mom & Pop bookstand on the Square. And after years of homelessness, his family is now in a rented apartment in Lexington. “I don’t sell books anymore,” Ken said (although donations for free books are happily accepted). Hinting that he might want to tell his own story one day, he adds: “I might sell one book, and that will be my last.”
A man quick to smile and happy to chat, Ken initially opened his bookstand with Gary Kibler, whom Ken calls his first vendor, but now he runs the business himself. The two men began with a stock of 450 “A-books,” as Ken refers to them, “super-sellers or of super-interest.” He “scoured Goodwill, Salvation Army, which was cheaper back then,” to form this first stock. Some of these books were displayed on a four-by-eight-foot table — a size acceptable by some vending laws — while the rest they placed in a storage unit, each carefully recorded on a list. Yet what he stored then pales in comparison to the 40,000 to 50,000 books he now holds in a more impressive storage unit.
These first books took 85 days to sell, as Ken and Kibler usually had one or two hours before police officers escorted them to the police department on the grounds that the two enterprisers were violating Cambridge vending laws. But as Ken noted, one important objective was fulfilled: they generated a clientele.
He fought for his right to sell the books in court on multiple occasions, fully aware of his rights to sell his book collection. “The only reason that they would ever be able to have shut me down was if I had been selling what the community considered to be pornography, so in order to cover that I made a list … I just went out and bought top-notch books because I wanted to build up a clientele.”
Though it took multiple trips to a courtroom and created much stress over permit rights, Ken persevered, inspired by his inceptive vision to one day hold six tables all manned by low-income homeless citizens. “Then I just started challenging them; I grew. And they refused to put me in front of a judge again, which I wanted, because I wanted the judge to see the other things they were doing, like the illegal permit and the illegal doing business…and all of that stuff.” Excited by his own rebellion, Ken even flew a pirate’s flag above his stand for a long period of time. He now holds a stand much larger than the four by eight foot table, but the Cambridge police have acquiesced and given their word to leave his stand alone. He did face one great loss though during this time, which was when Kibler left the enterprise.
Flash back to now. The books remain on only one stand, but Ken has hired multiple people who were not “employable somewhere else … the ones that might be on disability and might have a fixed income … we had a retiree who was on Social Security…a junkie that was honest enough to allow to handle money … a lot of different people that you would see panhandling in the Square that just needed a quick few dollars.”
One of his workers was at it for many years with Ken, helped him fill up trailers with books, take down the stand at night, and pull in his fair share of income from customers. “He probably made five or six thousand dollars over the course of a few years.” Another of his workers, Bobby, was given $50 dollars for his day’s work and half of what he sold. But as Ken notes, “there was no fixed income” and no daily average, due to the irregularity of a weather and personal-relations-dependant business.
After all this time, though, Ken is giving his books for free, slowly taking down his stand. “I’m kind of hoping the free-book exchange thing works out … unfortunately I think they’d rather have the bum on the corner than the free books…and I might actually make more as the bum on the corner than the free-book-guy…that really says something about society.”
Yet do not be fooled, this enterpriser is not a total pessimist. When asked what his ideal enterprise would be, Ken answered “recycling humans.” His vision is a business of helping people, generally thrown off by society as useless, to learn how to work so as to not just find their own means but also their own life purpose. “That’s what this was about,” Ken smiles, “on a small scale.” JULIE MONRAD, a student at Harvard University, writes for Spare Change News.
Spare Change News archive: Almost Banned But Still in Business, Oct. 16, 2009,
PHOTO/PRESTON M. HELLER