Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Los Angeles Throws The Book At Book Collector, Collector Throws It Back (And Wins!)

Our Lady of the Angels loosely dangling the Scales of Justice.

Los Angeles officials' claim that  an L.A.  book collector operated as a book dealer has been rejected by the 2d Appellate District Court.

Richard Hopp, a resident of Van Nuys, CA, and a bail bondsman by trade, is a very aggressive  collector, placing ads in magazines and online to solicit books he is interested in acquiring, even going to the extreme of setting up a "buying booth" at flea markets and small book fairs.

City officials interpreted Hopp's unusual book collecting activities as evidence of his being a book dealer, reasoning that only a dealer would be so conspicuous; surely he was selling off some of what he was buying. They demanded that he get a sellers permit to operate.

Hopp declined their offer, via lawsuit, in 2008. He lost.

He appealed. After two years, he has won: Number B215265, The Case of the Cockeyed Book Collector Who Was Mistaken For A Miscreant.

The Los Angeles ordinance regulating "secondhand book dealers" defines secondhand book dealers as those "engaging in, conducting, managing or carrying on the business of buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise dealing in secondhand books..." The City claimed that either buying OR selling falls under the ordinance's definition of secondhand book dealer. The "or" was the legal oy that the City Attorney's office used as a cudgel.

For many rare book dealers. buying books is the best part of the job. And for some of those, selling the books they acquire is the most painful aspect of it. As dealers, they're great collectors

There is no doubt that Richard Hopp was buying books. But selling them? The Los Angeles City fathers should have known that the only circumstance that might possibly get a hard-core book collector to part with volumes from their collection hearkens back to an old Jack Benny routine, which we paraphrase here:

MUGGER w/ gun: Your books or your life!

(Collector remains silent).

MUGGER: Hey, I said your books or your life!

COLLECTOR: I'm thinking about it!

What subject areas does Mr. Hopp collect in? During a brief phone interview, he declared to Booktryst that he goes for "oddball stuff" that includes volumes on "law, finance, embalming, and women's suffrage."

With lead feet on the scales of justice, the City argued that buying books at  flea markets and the like provided a clear and present dangerous opportunity for people to sell books acquired by felony. Their rationale was that by compelling book buyers such as Mr. Hopp to carefully account for their purchases book thieves would find it increasingly difficult to move their merchandise. 

The Appellate Court, ruling from Planet Earth, declared with breathtaking clarity that by common definition a business is a commercial venture offering a product or service with the intention of earning a profit. Mr. Hopp was not offering anything to anybody; all the City could prove was that he bought and collected books, sometimes donating unwanted items to charity or recycling centers.

Basically then, the City was claiming Mr. Hopp to be an altruistic capitalist. That's a capital offense in Ayn Randland but not in the real world.

As for preventing the fencing of stolen books, the Appellate Court, wisely and without need of a Mensa consultant, recognized that a crusade against fences is best led against people who are actually reselling what they've stolen and not against people who aren't reselling the books they haven't stolen.

Richard Hopp is an obsessive book collector using out of the ordinary means to get the books he wants for his collection. And not a man to trifle with. He has, during this entire affair, posted all court documents, now over thirty in total, relating to the case on his website, BuyingItAll, a name that no doubt inspired the Los Angeles City Attorney to think, AndGottaBeSellingSomeOfIt. 

"I'm a Republican conservative," Hopp said in an interview in the January 2009 issue of Maine Antique Digest, "but I don't let anybody in the world own the Constitution, and I don't let any government get down my pants, and if they do than I'm the guy who will show up at three o'clock in the morning and say '&#%* you, you've got to get out of my life!'"

The article in Maine Antiques Digest relates that "one California municipality found out the hard way that it costs money to ignore his demands. In 2005 Hopp sued the city of Glendale for ignoring a request for information. Hopp and his attorneys were awarded $16,892.30, plus interest, by a state court."

Though he won this battle, Mr. Hopp is currently on a crusade for state legislation to relieve this legal onus upon collectors of any type of collectible. He doesn't want cops showing up at collectors' doors at three o'clock in the morning with SWAT backup - unless, perhaps, it's his door and they have some really nice, old books to sell.

He'd better carefully account for the transaction lest he get nailed on a receipt of stolen property rap by an overzealous official NotBuyingItAll.

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