Officers from the 6th Precinct confiscated upwards of 3,000 books between Waverly Place and Washington Place one early morning roughly a month ago because vendors broke city regulations, police said at a recent community meeting.
"If the vending is legal, it's legal. But if it's not, we'll shut it down," Deputy Inspector Brandon del Pozo, the precinct's commanding officer, said.
He said the sellers broke city rules by leaving their merchandise unattended overnight, having more than one table per vendor and selling non-permitted items like pornography and electronics.
Ten officers spent more than six hours loading three police vans with books, tables and other property they deemed had been abandoned, he said. The vendors also set up their tables too close to bus stops, planters and trees, he added.
"For the whole day, those officers didn't do anything but clear away books," del Pozo said.
Free speech regulations in the city allow vendors of books, newspapers, periodicals, pamphlets and other written materials to operate without the Department of Consumer Affairs licenses other vendors are required to have, but these protected vendors must abide by other vendor laws, according to city Administrative Code.
Vendors are limited to 8 feet of space parallel to the curb, and there must be 3 feet of space from the curb to the property line. The vendor must be at least 20 feet from the entrance of any building, city law states.
The seized books are being held as abandoned property with the NYPD's property clerk, del Pozo said, and can be claimed within four months of the date they were taken.
But the vendors said they haven't been told anything about being able to claim their books, they said.
"It's a big game. We never get any vouchers from them," said a bookseller named Warren who declined to give his last name and said he had sold books on Sixth Avenue for 12 years.
Warren, 55, said police have been raiding the book tables for as long as he can remember. He estimated he lost about $1,500 in books and magazines at three tables because of the recent raid.
Another vendor named Keith, who also declined to give his last name, said the raid cost him about $2,000.
"Even with a lot of tables you still don't make much money," the bookseller of more than 20 years said.
Sixth Avenue's book vendors —who were the subject of the 2000 book "Sidewalk" by Princeton University sociologist Mitchell Duneier — received a warning from the 6th Precinct in late August, in advance of Hurricane Irene, del Pozo said.
Back then, officers seized and threw away several tables' worth of books and magazines for fear that they would fly around in the wind and cause property damage, he said.
Vendors located one block north, between Waverly Place and West 8th Street, will be next on the 6th Precinct's list, del Pozo said.
"In the near to mid-term, you will see a change in the book-selling environment on Sixth Avenue," del Pozo said.
Regular customer Sharon Coello, who said she has visited the book stands about twice a week for almost 15 years because of their "ridiculously cheap" prices, said she's sorry to see a threat to the vendors.
"I can't say I'd be too happy if I walked down the street and didn't see them," said Coello, 30. "It would hurt my soul, I think."