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 Britches and Filthy McNasty represent only a portion of Van Means's inventory. A customer who asked him if he ever came across Playboy magazines 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."
As early as the 1960s, Van Means was starting to see how beautiful erotica could be from an aesthetic point of view and began to collect what he calls "alternative literature." At the same time, he says, he was designing and making clothes for Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, J.R. Hudson, I. Magnin. "I was one of the few black guys doing it and I made a lot of money."
Lou Gossett, who lived with Van Means on and off throughout the decade, says, "I called him the black Beau Brummell. We'd meet up and sit in his Rolls Royce at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street eating watermelon," Gossett says. "I can't remember if I met him through the theater scene or the folk-music scene, but we were all thereRichard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Jimi Hendrix, and John Sebastian."
Another good friend, Gordon Parks Jr., would jump-start Van Means's next career in the early '70s. Parks had made the seminal film Superfly and was in the process of directing another movie. Appalled at how much money Parks was paying his screenwriter, Van Means says he bought a book on screenwriting and wrote a screenplay entitled Come to the Table. "It was about pool hustlers, which I knew a lot about. It was eventually sold to James Brown for $25,000, but they never made the movie." (The Writers' Guild has no record of Van Means's script, but the organization only keeps track of scripts that have been produced.) "I finished the screenplay and I took it to Gordon and he said, 'You're going to get your ass in trouble,' and I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'You're plagiarizing, you're putting your name on someone else's work,' and I said, 'No, I wrote it.' He said, 'John, you can't even talk.' I said, 'I don't trust you. Show this to your father.' "
Gordon Parks Sr., a Life magazine photographer and the director of Shaft, said he'd certainly seen worse. That was all Van Means needed to hear. Van Means says he ultimately wrote 13 scripts and sold 11. Two were made into low-budget movies so bad they weren't released.
In 1976, Gordon Parks Jr. was hired to direct a film in Africa based on the writings of a Zambian cabinet minister. John Van Means wanted in. "I heard that Zambian officials had given Gordon two writers that would be acceptable: One was Lonnie Elder, nominated for an Academy Award for Sounder, and the other was a drunk named Chuck Gordone, who won a Pulitzer Prize for No Place to Be Somebody. He was the most wretched nigger that God has ever let live. When I found out that Chuck had won the Pulitzer Prize, I went home and threw myself on the floor, biting the fucking rug, cursing.
"I called Gordon Parks Jr. and said, 'Let's have lunch.' " They agreed that among Elder, Van Means, and Gordone, Van Means would need the least baby-sitting. "So now I was going to Africa. My agent at the time told me not to go, but I wasn't going to let a white man tell me what to do. I wanted to go to Africa to be with my people. We flew to London, and diplomats met us at the plane. I got nervous when I found out the pilots were black but when we got to Zambia, I thought, 'I'm with my people, I'm happy.' Africans never let you forget that you're American, even if you are black, but I was happy." Van Means says he'd been promised $75,000 for the script. "I'm there a month when they tell us that they're having problems in Zambia and if they send that much money out of the country the people will rise up. I turn in the draft, they pay me $75K in local money that can only be spent in Zambia." The movie was off, but Van Means remained in Africa for most of the next decade, until his longing for the States grew too strong to resist.
Van Means returned to New York in 1987 to find that the person handling his finances had blown his savings on currency trading and a brutal drug habit. He ended up in a church-run shelter, refusing to ask anyone for money. That year, he got the idea of selling literature on the street while walking down St. Marks and seeing books and magazines spread out on tables and blankets. His own extensive collection had been stored in a friend's loft, and he cut a deal directly with the suppliers. "They were paying the suppliers 25 percent, and I offered 35 percent. I said that, and I was in." Today, Van Means runs his stand like a business and makes a very good living, though he is reluctant to supply hard numbers. He has a license from the city to sell literature, and the cops leave him alone. "I have a hell of a clienteleit's embarrassing. People from all walks of life, learned people, famous people I can't mention. At my salon, friends come to say hello: actors, models, bankers, lawyers, doctors from international relief organizations. I'm very discreet. If I don't have it, I can get it."
Van Means's lifelong love of women and his dealings in erotica are perhaps a contradiction, and depending on how you read it, his explanation is either forthright or brilliantly evasive. Over lunch, Van Means says, "Feminists have attacked me on many issues. I have a stock answer: If you disagree with what I'm doing, do you believe in the Constitution as it is written? Those 55 white men who met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to write the Constitution, one of the most magnificent documents ever written, gave me the right to do what I am doing. I am breaking no law. If you disagree with what I'm doing, I would suggest that you go to Congress and get the law changed. I have an orphanage to help in Africa. I have a leper colony that I look out for in Africa. Did you know that there are still lepers?"
He turns reflective. "I don't have a wife, but I do have to eat. I like pastrami sandwiches that cost $10, and until you can get those laws changed, I will continue to do these things. I'm 57. I missed out. All the great women, all the fantastic women, I fucked up. I thought I'd stay 20 years old forever with a 32-inch waistline. I'd get married now, if any woman would have me."
Reached in Los Angeles, Lou Gossett says, "Van Means is an artist. He's a genius and a charlatan. He's all of these contradictory things. Give him my number and tell him to call me. And tell him I'm driving a Corniche Two."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.