Beneath The Strand’s awnings, where the homeless used to frequently sleep overnight (image via Flickr user orijinal)

The commercial arena for books, though less in tune with the sensibilities of tycoons and autocrats than the world of art, is nonetheless defined by a manichean struggle pitting independent publishers and booksellers against retail and publishing conglomerates.

But today, that moral binary was blurred when it was reported that the Strand Book Store, one of America’s foremost independent booksellers, intentionally uses its sprinkler system to douse the homeless who attempt to sleep under the store’s iconic red awnings. DNAinfo New York reported that signs reading “Warning: Sprinkler System Will Run Periodically From 10:30 PM-9:00 AM” were pulled “after a reporter asked about it.” The signs were allegedly connected to the practice of using the “sprinkler system to drive away homeless people.”

DNAinfo spoke to several homeless individuals who live on that stretch of East 12th Street, and they noted both the potentially devastating cruelty of this practice and the fact that the bookstore used to be more permissive in the past:

“It was bad because you get soaking wet.  If you’re lying there and you don’t know about it, everything is going to get soaking wet — all your personal belongings. You’re going to freeze, basically.”

Charise Paschall, 39, who was trying to sleep close to Pilgrim on the pavement, added, “It’s already cold. You’re going to basically freeze to death.”

Local homeless people said that in years past they regularly took shelter under the Strand’s awning without the threat of sprinklers.

“We used to be able to sleep over there. For years and years they let people sleep over there,” said Breeze Reavis, 35, who regularly sleeps on the street around the corner from the Strand.

One relevant component of the story omitted by DNAinfo’s report is the mutually-beneficial business relationship between the Strand and members of the city’s community of the poor and destitute who traffic in used and discarded books. They can often be seen lining up at the purchasing door located on East 12th Street, far from the main entrance, where at designated times the venerable bookstore inspects and buys books from the general public.

[via Gawker]

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

9 replies on “Beloved Independent Bookstore Soaks the Homeless”

  1. They should move somewhere where the cost of living isnt so high, get jobs, and seek government assistance, till they are on their feet… 35 and complaining about not being able to sleep next to a book store…? Pathetic.

    1. try empathy, Raven. Homelessness exists far beyond NYC, even in places where “the cost of living isn’t so high.” It is the result of mental or physical disease (and yes, addiction IS a disease, check the DSM), misfortune, injustice and sometimes choice – but rarely the latter. people cannot all be measured against the same standard. quality human beings help their fellows in the struggle to make it through this life rather than condemning those who are different than them. and while people in such a situation “should,” get help, it isn’t always as readily available as we think – especially in a city where shelters and soup kitchens are overflowing, and resources are stretched thin.

    2. And is the money going to fall from the sky so that they can move somewhere more affordable? Get your privileged attitude out of here.

    3. You really think you’re the first one to suggest those cliched answers to homelessness, ever? You should actually go read something on the institutionalized factors that drive homelessness, like the effects of non prioritizing mental health care, or how homelessness and mental illness intersect; so that you can actually have a point about it, and don’t just wind up regurgitating the talking points you’ve only heard, as an actual thought on the subject…

    4. I’m with Raven. And yes, they are mostly mentally ill, but hey, there are those of us who are also deemed mentally ill and we still work hard, hold jobs and contribute to society. Way to lambast her for speaking her mind. It’s not her fault they’re homeless. It’s not the business’s fault. Blame the government who is in denial about this being a mental health problem and leaving it up to shelters and soup kitchens. Lets face it, what is needed is institutions where they’re treated for mental health in a respectable fashion for free. We pay money for medicare w/our taxes, then when we need it, we get the medicare, yet have to pay it back afterwards. So basically, we’re paying into it twice. Where’s the logic in that?
      *Gets off soap box*

  2. This is not a new tactic, just new to New York (it may be used by other businesses, but this is the first I’ve heard of it here). As far as I know the practice of using sprinklers to deter homeless people started in Portland of all places. I remember hearing about it in the mid-90s.

  3. I feel like there is a very interesting connection here. Bookstores are becoming obsolete much like a lot of these individuals have in our society leading to their homelessness. Hmm….

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