Risqué Business

How John Van Means Wound Up Selling Sidewalk Erotica

John Van Means sells erotic literature from a display table in the shadow of Cooper Union just south of Astor Place. His sidewalk stand is protected by a large white umbrella, but Van Means, a big African American man with a large head and an acute sense of humor, prefers to sit in a folding chair in the street, surrounded by a shifting group of friends and clients. On a recent late summer afternoon, customers could be found peering into milk crates filled with hardcore videos and scanning rows of magazines. Two vans containing Van Means's merchandise are permanently parked in the lot facing the stand. Last Halloween, one van caught fire, and Van Means suffered a significant loss of inventory, but people came out of the woodwork to press money on him for new stock, he says. Van Means has a very loyal clientele.

Contemporary porn magazines and sleeveless videos with blunt titles like Sweet Britchesand Filthy McNastyrepresent only a portion of Van Means's inventory. A customer who asked him if he ever came across Playboymagazines from the 1960s, and used only vague adjectives like "naive" and "girlish" to describe what she was looking for, says that over the next month, rectangular packages, each wrapped discreetly in brown paper with her name and "Personal" written clearly on the front, were delivered to her place of work. The first collection included seven vintage magazines, most celebrating nudism and all demure by Larry Flynt's "show pink" standards, with titles like Cocktail, Sundial, Busy Body, and Modern Man Deluxe. Later packages contained the uniquely cheerful '60s Playboys, their covers graced by iconic blonds in football jerseys and white socks. In each of the four collections Van Means sent her, she says she was struck by his ability to divine her tastes. "I understand your temperament," he told her.

Van Means's current profession is only the latest of many incarnations, and his stories are mesmerizing. On the street, the wide range of his acquaintance is obvious. Walk with him from the kiosk on Astor Place down St. Marks to Avenue A, and Korean jewelry merchants, black jazz musicians, white record-store managers, and pasty East Villagers call out to him or stop him to talk or pay something on their accounts. "I have something for you," or "Come see me tomorrow," he says.

Van Means was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1943, two years before Wilhelm Reich coined the term "the Sexual Revolution." "I was raised by women," he says. "I was a boy with almond-shaped eyes, small ears, and a penis. Forget it. They tricked me, these schoolteachers, big beautiful women smelling of powder and perfume and snuggling you and saying, 'Be a good boy, respect your elders, go to church, get good grades in school, and we'll love you forever.' " Their fragrant influence was such that Van Means got excellent grades in school, respected his elders, didn't drink or smoke, and formed a high opinion of women.

He began collecting at a young age. "In my house, they didn't give me toys. It was books. I read because I saw that if you knew a lot, you could have a lot of girlfriends." Women, literature, clothes, and more women are the leitmotivs that run through John Van Means's story. In high school, while his other male friends were running around the football field, he was in the stadium, in a beautiful cashmere coat, putting a move on a girl. Anybody could play football, but not just anybody could take a girl out to a soda shop and tell her about Agamemnon and the fall of Troy.

Van Means was a dutiful son, but he did not leave Raleigh voluntarily. When he was 20, his father threw him out of the house, tired, Van Means says, of his girl-chasing. "I had never had a job in my life, I'd never been alone, by myself," he says, even as he describes in detail the woman who precipitated his banishment. "A drum majorette, beautiful, with caramel coloring, with freckles around the bridge of her nose, an A-scholar, absolutely beautiful. That night I was feeling good. I got home with lipstick on my collar, and two packed suitcases were on the porch."

Van Means got on the bus for New York, found a place to stay in New Jersey with family friends, and came into the city on weekends. "I would come by train and stop in the bus station and take off my nice clothes and put on a blue workshirt and a pair of denims and a pair of sandals and come to Greenwich Village to find a girl with a ponytail and leotards who could dance. A bohemian girl, a beat girl." This was the early '60s. He'd heard there was "free love" in Greenwich Village, and that's where he was headed. "I went bananas," he says. "I went absolutely spastic. I did nothing to uplift the black race, take my word for it."

He started going to acting school, but gave it up, he says, when his friend, the actor and director Lou Gossett Jr., told him he had no talent. Instead, a fortuitous meeting in Washington Square Park with black fashion designer Scott Barrie gave Van Means a real career. In 1966, Susan Brownmiller profiled Van Means for The Village Voice. Her cover story, "The New Black Chic," described the "liberated Negro dress designer for whom 'bias' is a desirable cut of cloth, not a polite term for racism." Van Means admitted to Brownmiller that designing was an excuse for meeting women, and his remark that he was never comfortable in Harlem set off a firestorm, he says now. "The sisters came down from 125th Street to show me what real women were about. I was inside the store, hiding behind the dresses, afraid to come out."

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