Not really 'bookstores'

January 26, 2012

It's become something of a euphemism in American English that the words "adult books" mean something other than what they mean. Even now, most public libraries have a children's book section and an adult book section, yet the notion that adult books refer to a particularly tawdry genre of publications can give the library a section that will cause middle school boys to laugh among themselves.

The so-called adult bookstores in Harford County are once again in the spotlight, this time because police spot checks turned up some lewd behavior and a Catholic priest from Towson was among those charged in the incident.

Predictably, just about every time police go into some of these shops, they turn up behavior that is not only beyond the realm of polite company, but also is anti-social and in many cases illegal. Indeed, the moniker "bookstore" seems to lend an air of credibility to these enterprises. This is understandable, to a degree.

Notorious magazine publisher Larry Flynt (whose products aren't sold to those younger than 18) has managed to portray himself as a crusader on the front line of protecting First Amendment freedoms of press, speech and, by extension, expression. Flynt makes some valid points, but many of the operations that characterize themselves as bookstores and try to ride his coattails really aren't on solid moral ground. The reason is simple: bookstores they are not.

For more than a decade, the kind of products peddled at such bookstores have been available in a dizzying array on the Internet and cable television, where the market for them seems to be endless and, to a certain degree, fairly mainstream. Whether condoned by the managers of the shops, or done behind their backs, a harsh reality of the scene at many "adult bookstores" is that the attraction isn't the products, but intimate interaction with the other people there ostensibly to partake of the products.

Over his long tenure as Harford County State's Attorney, Joseph I. Cassilly has been part of law enforcement efforts to subdue the illegal aspects of what goes on in many adult bookstores, meeting with only limited success. Going back several years, as many as a half a dozen such shops were in the county. Some of those may be gone, but customers keep flocking to those that survive.

Many, however, remain, and Cassilly says he's looking into the possibility of shutting them down, responding to complaints from people living in the communities near those shops.

"If you keep breaking the law and don't seem to be able to control it, the fact that you have an establishment people keep coming to break the law, if you can't control it, it seems the government has a responsibility to do something," Cassilly said.

This sentiment is absolutely correct. On those occasions when a bar or restaurant selling the legal product alcohol allows its patrons to get out of hand on a regular basis, the result is generally a hearing before the liquor board, followed by a fine, suspension or, in extreme cases, license revocations.

The product at these stores is in many ways every bit as volatile as alcohol, and thus a high degree of scrutiny is warranted when the people who sell it fail to take this into account. Hopefully, efforts on the part of Cassilly and others in law enforcement will eliminate the illegal activity that too often goes hand in hand with these operations.

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