Dirty Book Keeping

Independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr has a way of transforming his targets into martyrs, and he did it again in March, when he subpoenaed two Washington, D.C., bookstores for Monica Lewinsky's buying records. Kramerbooks, a local independent bookstore, and the Georgetown branch of Barnes & Noble instantly announced they would put up a fight. When it was further reported that one of the books Lewinsky bought from Kramerbooks was Vox, Nicholson Baker's best-selling phone-sex story, Starr came off like a Peeping Tom and the bookstores reaped volumes of sympathetic press. All of which obscured one question: What gives bookstores like Kramerbooks and Barnes & Noble the right to keep a permanent record of Lewinsky's—or any other customer's—credit card and check purchases?

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The truth is that while bookstores don't want to be forced to release information about their customers, they happily collect as much of it as they can for their own purposes—meaning if Kramerbooks wanted to sell Lewinsky's book-buying history to, say, an erotic magazine looking for new subscribers, it could.

And what do they do with this information? "I have no idea," says Kramerbooks spokesman Bob Witeck.

Barnes & Noble is even more cagey. Spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating, responding by fax, states only that "Barnes & Noble believes that the First Amendment is sacrosanct."

Chris Finan of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression says that since there's no law against collecting and distributing such information, discretion is purely voluntary. "Our conviction is that these records...should not be sold to anybody," says Finan.

In the meantime, here's a tip for Monica and other bookstore habitués: Pay cash.

—Richard Blow