Forgotten Battles for Basic Rights

We are surrounded by battlefields, but we don’t always recognize them.  Some are proteceted by the Park Service, others have been absorbed by developers.  But sometimes the battlefields are visible but are unrecognized, despite the struggles waged there…and although the site is changed, we should not forget the principle involved.

One such battlefield is at the Yorktown Shopping Plaza at Va. 50 and Gallows Road, home of Grevey’s Restaurant and the location of one of the most fierce freedom of speech cases Northern Virginia has seen in my lifetime.  It happened in the back corner of the plaza, where today I discovered an optometrists shop had taken the place of the Yorktown Book and Card Shop (YBCS).

One fundamental aspect of American law is that all laws apply equally to all citizens.  An observation that often follows-to the point of being a cliche-is that sometimes these laws are used to protect behavior that many would find nauseating…and that we find that some folks will go through significant sacrifice to defend a point of law or of honor.

Such was at point back in the corner of the Yorktown Shopping Plaza.  Back in the late eighties, well before the internet and huge book stores like Borders or Barnes & Noble, the YBCS had an extremely large magazine selection.  Pretty much any magazine you were looking for, you could get there, and the store had a large and varied clientele. 

This included adult magazines, which took up probably 20% of the shelf space.  There was so much interest in that section that newspaper articles said there was a sign up that limited “browing” in that area to 10 minutes.

“Newspaper?”, you ask…”why would there be a newspaper story about this establishment?”

One day-I want to say in the early 1990’s-Fairfax County issued a writ of some type that prohibited the store form selling adult publications.  I don’t know the exact grounds, but it kicked up quite a stir.  The owner refused to comply saying the ruling was a violation of free speech.  The ACLU got into it, appealed the decision, and after two years or more in transit the Fairfax County decision was overturned in a federal court.  Freedom of Speech again defended, this time on behalf of selling smut.

But what always fascinated me about this is what the owner did.  As I said, this disputed area was about 20% of his magazine display space.  Other merchants would certainly display other goods there…but not this fellow.  He posted large signs in the are saying he was not going to allow an illegal government ordinance prevent him from selling what he wanted or tell him what goods to put on the shelf.

So for more than two years 20% of his shelf space went empty-all over a principle.  The subject of the principled fight isn’t one most of us would get behind, but to him it was a matter of principle.  Not a great business decision leaving that much space empty and non-revenue producing, but that is what he did.  And, given the traffic generated by the merchandise that was removed, that 20% of shelf space probably generated more than 20% of his income.  Still, principle triumped over profit, and the space stayed clear.

When the courts came back and overturned Fairfax County, he restocked the shelves with the previously verbotten merchandise.

I became aware of all this through coverage in the WaPo and by being a devoted patron of the Skyline Chili restaurant that was about two doors down.  Patrons had a clear view through the window of the many signs, Letter to the Editor and editorial cartoons the YBCS owner posted in his front window in support of his position.  I always marveled at how strongly he must have believed in this little corner of the Freedom of Speech to have given up that much revenue in support of his position.

Circumstance recently had me over at the Yorktown plaza for lunch at the Dominion Deli.  Skyline Chili is long gone, and I discovered that so was the YBCS.  I guess this little store got whipsawed between the internet and the big box bookstores with their large magazine selection.  Still, as I looked at the back corner office that once was a battlefield over first amendment rights, I couldn’t help help but reflect at how far people will go to proctect what they think is important.

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