The stand is an ugly and ungainly thing, its Jenga towers of yellowing books wobbling precariously. While most pandemic-weary business owners are doing everything they can to cajole customers, Charlie Mysak — the stand’s owner, archivist, and disbarred legal advisor – largely ignores passersby.
For more than two decades now, he’s been peddling used books and other dusty ephemera from this unmarked, unnamed and unpermitted stall at West 68th Street and Columbus Avenue, a cushy corner of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Mysak, 70, looks like a pirate. His stained black bucket hat and unruly gray beard cover most of his face. Two clashing scarves droop onto his belly. In winter, it’s hard to tell just how many layers he has on; they all stack together like a woolen exoskeleton.
This morning, Mysak is browsing through his own collection, the quarter-inch of ash at the end of his cigar flirting dangerously with the cover of H.L. Mencken’s On Politics.
He puts it back on top of a stack featuring, among others, Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop,” Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and a textbook called “The Complete Gnomes.” Michel Foucault sits above “Erotic Art of the West.” A volume on tax loopholes peeks out beneath the plastic tabletop. Other featured selections, equally random, top the soggy cardboard boxes in front of the tables.
“There are no themes to the stacks whatsoever,” Mysak acknowledges. “I know my books. I want other people to have to look around.”
As a cold gust sweeps down Columbus, he ducks into Thomas Drugs to warm up, finding a chair in the back of the store and charging his phone. “He just kind of helps himself to the outlets,” says Joti Rana, a cashier. “He gives himself discounts and stuff. We charge $1.50 for chocolate bars, but he’ll just take one and throw a dollar on the table and run out.”
Mysak has used the store as an office and thawing room for more than a decade. He and the pharmacist, Khaja Khateeb, crack jokes across the counter in what is clearly a familiar routine.
A few hours later, with sunset looming, Mysak still has not sold a single book. “I’m here out of habit. Business is horrible,” he says. Yet, he doesn’t seem concerned. He sips a cardboard-colored coffee and chats with his friend Pietro (surname: “don’t worry about my name”), who watches the stand when Mysak leaves to warm up.
Pietro lights up a Marlboro Red. “I tell Charlie to do something about these books all the time. It’s depressing. Some books are wet,” Pietro says. He remembers a time when Mysak could make $200 a day. But in the digital age, Pietro worries, even big booksellers are struggling, never mind this ramshackle stand. Mysak leaves to tend to some unspecified business just before a customer finally appears.
Kevin Cleary, a longtime patron, soon gets lost in Mysak’s jungle and eventually selects a paperback by Mary McCarthy. Pietro throws up two fingers, the price he feels like charging for the book. He’s looser with prices than Mysak, who usually aims for the $8 to $10 range.
“Charles is like a bouquiniste,” Cleary says, referring to the storied secondhand booksellers by the Seine in Paris. “A bouquiniste, here on the banks of Columbus Avenue.”
Before he was the Upper West Side’s resident loitering bookseller, he was Charles J. Mysak, Attorney at Law. After graduating from Emory Law School, Mysak was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1977. He quickly became a deputy state attorney general in New Jersey and later a moderately successful private attorney. He claims he never made more than $100,000 a year in his practice, but money didn’t seem his primary motivator: Mysak loved a good scene.
With his Coke-bottle glasses and unmatched verbosity, Mysak first garnered local notoriety earning tickets for every traffic violation imaginable. In 1997, a judge ordered Mysak to pay more than $5,000 in fines and serve 68 days in jail, The (Bergen, N.J.) Record reported. He’d been ticketed multiple times for driving with a suspended license, without insurance, with an unregistered vehicle, and without inspection stickers or a seatbelt.
When he wasn’t lambasting defendants or driving semi-legally, Mysak collected used books. He frequented Acres of Books in Trenton, N.J., which sold hundreds of thousands of volumes out of wooden apple crates. On a visit in 1988 or 1989, he saw the store was closing. The owner had died, and his daughter had no interest in taking over the store. She made Mysak an astonishing offer: take all the books you can, so long as you pay to move them.
Mysak took them all. “10 trucks and $28,000 later,” Mysak says, the store’s entire stock, some 400,000 books by his estimate, was in storage containers. Though friendly neighbors often donate newer books to the stand, the core of his offerings still come from that initial haul. “The plan was to sell them online,” he claims, but soon, this side hustle became his lifeline.
In 1988, Mysak was driving around suburban Wayne, N.J., listening to a news radio report of the mayor being kidnapped. He knew the mayor and had even run against him in a failed independent bid for office (Mysak came in third). He decided to attend a township meeting that night to learn more. Then 38, Mysak had become a fixture in local politics, frequently arguing with officials over legal arcana, even being removed from one meeting by police for exceeding his five-minute talking limit. “I was at the peak of my so-called legal career.”
At the meeting, Mysak learned that the town planned to approve a multimillion-dollar commercial and residential complex on a plot previously classified as wetlands. Most of the town supported the project. Not Mysak.
“I noted by my count 22 violations of municipal land use rules,” he recalls. At the mic, he also argued the meeting itself violated rules requiring adequate public notice before the council could convene.
He sued the Township of Wayne and the complex developers. While he succeeded in delaying the development for almost a decade, in 1996, courts finally allowed the project to move forward.
Less than a month after the case ended, Mysak’s bad luck continued as he received notice from the Office of Attorney Ethics that he had been selected for a random audit. From there, his legal career began to unwind.
In 1997, the bar association suspended him after finding significant accounting discrepancies and in 1999, he was officially disbarred for misappropriating trust and escrow funds.
In just a few years, he lost his home, his career, his livelihood. But he still had his books.
The books stay on the banks of Columbus Avenue even when Mysak takes a bus home to his apartment in Bloomingdale, NJ, where he lives with his wife, Marilyn, a services coordinator for an assisted living center. Before leaving, he “battens down the hatches,” Mysak-speak for covering the stacks with weathered tarps and blankets. He windproofs the arrangement with, among other things, an old wooden broomstick and a white door snapped in half.
Mysak’s creative use of public space has not come without troubles. On May 21, 2018, he sued the New York Police Department, alleging that cops had illegally taken apart his stand and seized his books. The city argued he had no right to leave the stand unattended overnight. Mysak disagreed.
For this grand return to a courtroom, he represented himself, of course. He argued that by seizing his books, the NYPD had violated his First, Fourth, and 14th Amendment rights. In a 19-page opinion, Judge J. Paul Oetken dismissed almost all his arguments, but Mysak had once again identified a technicality that kept the case open.
In nearby Central Park, the Strand, an iconic New York bookstore, operated a small kiosk with an attached shed where it locks its books overnight. Mysak argued that the police were selectively enforcing the rules by seizing his books and not the Strand’s.
Oetken did not necessarily agree, but the city had failed to attach a copy of the Strand’s permit in its filings, so the court could not consider it, keeping the case alive. Faced with the prospect of a drawn-out battle, the city settled with Mysak for $15,000. Mysak sees himself as a David to the city’s Goliath: who else has successfully sued the city from a fax machine in the back of a drugstore?
Lately, he’s found a new target in the local government’s pandemic response. Don’t expect any kind of legal challenge to the state, though; he’s plenty busy trying to keep thieves away from his books.
The other day, someone stole a crate of his vintage Playboys while he was in the drugstore.
“That’s the kind of horseshit that goes on in the great City of New York,” Mysak says.
About the author(s)
Joe Lovinger is a journalist from New York specializing in deeply-reported, character-driven stories. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and political wcience from Vanderbilt University and will graduate in May 2021 with a master’s in Journalism from Columbia University. For his master’s project, he wrote a longform narrative piece about the team of scientists working to understand how climate change will challenge New York’s water supply system. You can find more clips of his work at joelovinger.myportfolio.com or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.