I had a day to myself and got to walk around Harvard.
I stopped by this bookstore to check out some vintage titles, and get a look at Penny the dog and Charley the cat curled up in the cart sleeping through all the noise– that is until another dog walked by. Then Penny would start barking furiously and wag her tail in Charley’s face causing Charley to give her that look of disdain that only cats can master. I figured that the couple sitting in lawn chairs were there as official Cambridge vendors, since they were clearly running a business.
Their story is more complicated than that. The proprietor, Ken O’ Brien, and assistant manager Frenchie, are homeless. The sidewalk bookstore was almost ousted by the city but Ken and friends, including other nearby bookstore owners, prevailed. He says it is a good business nine months of the year. His books, an eclectic collection culled from sales and donations, are arranged neatly in heavy-duty banana boxes with plastic tarp stashed by in case of rain. Ken pays homeless people to collect the boxes.
O’Brien, 56, has been on the streets for 35 years. He met French, known as Frenchie, five years ago when he was panhandling in the square. She eventually joined him on the streets, and the two formed a family with their dog, Penny, who was rescued from a puppy mill, and their cat, Charlie, who was found on the busy streets of Harvard Square.
They run Almost Banned, a sidewalk book table that the city shut down earlier this year. But O’Brien reopened the Harvard Square business soon after, hoisting a brightly colored sign on a pole daring authorities to close it again.
The book table, where books sell for $2 each, is their lifeline.
He says he doesn’t want government support, just to run his own business and employ other homeless people. He’s worked since he was a boy, rode the rails, begged for change when there was no other way. He created his own job but was arrested for flagrant bookselling until he won in court…
The city continued to arrest them for not having the proper permit. However, O’Brien believed the permit the city instructed him to acquire did not apply to his circumstances. It required a $5,000 surety bond as well as $1 million in liability insurance to be approved by the city, fiscal requirements that didn’t bode well for a man who lives on the street with his family.
A glimmer of hope for O’Brien came in the form of an old Cambridge ordinance, entitled “Peddlers”. The ordinance reads: “No person shall place or keep any table, stall, booth or other erection, in any street, public place or any sidewalk, for the sale of any merchandise, without permission from the Superintendent of Streets. The fee for the permit set out in this chapter shall be fifty cents.”