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?

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


The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.