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Me and You and a Dog Named Lenny Bruce 

With the help of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, two local street vendors win a reprieve in their fight to sell books in New Orleans.

Josh Wexler and Jordan Blanton's book table doesn't exactly look like a typical crime scene.

Set up just outside El Matador on a recent beautiful spring evening, the rectangular table parallels Esplanade Avenue just a few feet from the Decatur Street intersection. It offers titles ranging from Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary. Wexler and Blanton have their own writing on display as well -- in petition form.

The petition begins, "To All Our Neighborhood Customers," and follows with the declaration that "The City of New Orleans is still trying to shut us down." Customers and passersby are asked to sign off on the statements: "We highly value the exchange of ideas and expression which a book table affords. Please do not deny us this important neighborhood resource." Several dozen names are on the petition; most addresses come from the lower French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater.

"The city seems pretty intent on shutting us down," says Wexler, 24, sitting comfortably in a folding chair with book in hand. Wexler and the couple's dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Lenny Bruce, are shaded against the setting sun by El Matador and three stories of apartments. A nearby 1985 Chevy conversion van -- with 130,000 miles on it -- serves as transport for the table and the books, taking the cargo to and from their Irish Channel apartment.

"Now the city wants to pass a ban on our use of the tables," says Wexler, referring to a new development in their 18-month discussions with various City Hall officials to obtain a book-vending permit. "That would essentially put us out of business. I can only carry four or five books at a time. Without a table, what am I supposed to do? Just go up to people on the streets and put a book in their face and ask if they want to buy it?"

The pursuit of sidewalk bookselling brought the Long Island native to this corner. Wexler met Blanton while they were both undergraduate students at New York University, both immersed in the book culture that lines the Manhattan campus with tables. Both worked in used books, Blanton in the Strand Book Store and Wexler at East Village Books. Wexler graduated from NYU with degrees in philosophy and music, while Blanton earned a fine arts degree. They moved here in August 2001; Wexler works part time at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, while Blanton studies as an apprentice under a furniture-maker.

Both also want to create a book street-scene here.

"Book tables are a real common sight in New York," says Blanton, 25, a New Orleans native who grew up in Lakeview and graduated from Ben Franklin High School. "It's a part of the culture up there, especially around the NYU campus. We both really enjoyed the pedestrian street life of New York, and I wanted to bring that home. I never realized the answer would be an outright, 'No.'"

Wexler and Blanton first heard that "no" in City Hall in December 2001, from officials in the Permit Office of the Department of Finance. Wexler and Blanton contend that city permit officials told them it was illegal to sell books on city sidewalks, citing a list of items that vendors are allowed to sell on the street -- goods ranging from food to flowers to razor blades. The list did not include books. Wexler and Blanton say they requested to view a copy of the list, but were told it is for internal office use only. "It got to the point when we were not going to take 'no' for any answer without any information as to why," Wexler says.

Officials from City Hall, the Mayor's Office and the City Attorney's Office have declined comment for this story, citing pending litigation. Wexler spotted an advertisement for the Washington, D.C.-based legal action group Institute for Justice, which accepted Wexler and Blanton's case on a pro bono basis -- as it does with every case. On April 8, Joshua Wexler, et al. vs. The City of New Orleans, et al., was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Wexler and Blanton are seeking the right to vend books in New Orleans, a declaration from the City of New Orleans that the city violated their right to free speech, and $1 in damages.

On April 15, Judge Standwood R. Duval Jr. issued a restraining order protecting them "from a city ordinance that has prevented them from selling books on the sidewalks anywhere in the city of New Orleans."

Immediately following the issuance of the restraining order, Wexler and Blanton set up shop on Esplanade Avenue. They have been at the book table most evenings since then, generally from 2:30 p.m. until dark. One Saturday, they set up across from Tulane University at Audubon Park's St. Charles Avenue entrance; they've also selected potential future sites on Magazine Street in the Garden District and Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny.

Last week, Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner arrived in town to appear in a preliminary injunction hearing in Judge Duval's court on Wednesday. Berliner says she "feels very confident" that the two will win their case against the city. She cites the issuance of a restraining order in the lawsuit as evidence that the judge found concern with the city's vending ordinance.

"There are numerous precedents with the Supreme Court of the sidewalks in our cities being cited as the quintessential public forum," Berliner says. "The cases come from people wanting to speak or petition in public, and the city's laws preventing such activities, whether it's demonstrating, handing out fliers, selling newspapers or soapbox political commentary."

In her nearly 10 years with the Institute for Justice, Berliner has won legal battles for African-American hair-braiders in California to operate without a cosmetology license, and for wooden-casket makers in Tennessee to produce their craft without acquiring a funeral director's license. "Josh and Jordan are trying to earn an honest living without burdensome government regulation," Berliner says. "If a government body or agency is not working to protect public health or safety, then it really has no right to regulate at all."

Last Wednesday, Judge Duval's dark and serene courtroom stood in contrast with the sunny chaos of Earl King's second-line funeral procession taking place across Lafayette Square. Wexler and Jordan were seated with Berliner and a paralegal across the expansive room from assistant city attorney Edward Washington. The reason for the hearing is to decide whether or not to extend the restraining order into a preliminary injunction, which essentially would maintain the restraining order, a time-limited legal option, until the lawsuit is resolved.

Wexler takes the stand and describes their book inventory as "around 600 titles, just our personal collection," and consisting of "fiction and non-fiction, from classical literature to contemporary fiction to philosophy, science, religion, history and children's books." He adds their business "would not be feasible" if they were forced to carry the books by hand. He later describes the advice he heard at City Hall -- after he filed the lawsuit -- to apply for a "novelties permit" or a "solicitor's permit" to legally vend their books. (In his opening remarks, Washington acknowledges "the city erred" in how it initially directed the couple.) Wexler adds that the two "wanted permanent, neighborhood locations to have the repeat customers we would know and talk books with."

During cross-examination from Washington, Wexler says that no city officials asked to see a list of the books or their content -- which, Washington says during closing arguments, demonstrates that the city is not "censoring their First Amendment free speech rights." Washington also asks Wexler and Jordan if they are interested in selling books door-to-door. They are not.

During closing arguments, Washington focuses on the book table. "This is not a free speech case," he states. "Our concern is having a bazaar set up outside City Hall, outside this federal building, outside of my house. Businesses that set up outside on sidewalks obtain the permits from the City, they pay for that use. Businesses pay money to lease that space. We can not allow another business to use it for free." A city ordinance allows special exemption for handmade artifacts to be sold from tables on Canal Street, he says. Duval closes the preliminary injunction hearing stating that the restraining order would remain permanent until he issues a written ruling, with no date or estimate given.

The reprieve granted, Wexler and Jordan -- and Lenny Bruce -- return that evening to their corner at Esplanade and Decatur.

click to enlarge DONN YOUNG
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