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Street vendor fights D.C.'s attempt to license button sales

By Del Quentin Wilber
Thursday, December 10, 2009; B01

Frank Enten loves selling political and historical buttons. He loves selling buttons so much that on a recent afternoon the 78-year-old ignored a cracked rib and stinging rain so he could hawk buttons on a D.C. street corner.

"Everybody needs a button," he yelled over the din of traffic while waving a hand over two canvas-covered boards festooned with Ronald Reagan buttons, Sarah Palin buttons, Bill Clinton buttons, Jimmy Carter buttons and one that said "Chinese for Nixon."

By the time he packed his boards into his car that afternoon, he had pocketed $20 in sales. But Enten didn't seem to mind the small sum. He was just happy to have spent the day selling his beloved buttons.

One thing Enten doesn't like so much: the D.C. government's demand that he obtain a vending license and site permit. Police have shooed him off countless street corners. He has been hauled away in handcuffs. And he keeps a wad of cash in a back pocket in case he needs to pay a fine quickly.

So, with the help of a pro bono lawyer, Enten says he's sticking up for his passion. He has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to prevent authorities from arresting him or requiring him to get the license and to sell at a spot chosen by the city. The city has offered him a permit to sell at 13th and L streets NW.

Enten and his attorney, Andrew Tauber, say the city's restrictions are unconstitutional. They argue that the District's permitting system violates Enten's rights and that he should be allowed to sell his buttons anywhere he likes.

Selling political and historical buttons is a protected form of free speech, they say, no different than hawking newspapers or literature, for which no license or site permit is required in the District.

Attorneys for the District argue that Enten is no different from merchants selling hot dogs or T-shirts. The city needs to regulate how and where such items are sold, they say.

"He does not have the right to appropriate the use of public property for his own profit while refusing to comply with the very administrative regulations that ensure the safe and orderly conduct of commercial activity," Sarah A. Sulkowski, an assistant D.C. attorney general, wrote in court papers.

City officials are also concerned that other vendors might try to adopt Enten's reasoning, which would "reduce the downtown area to a state of chaos and bring the orderly conduct of commerce -- both on and off the sidewalk -- to a grinding halt," Sulkowski wrote.

A ruling that could temporarily block the city from regulating Enten is expected in the coming weeks from U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

Enten awaits the decision eagerly but says he is surprised that his passion for buttons has ended up in a legal fight with city hall.

Raised in Washington, Enten became interested in political buttons in the 1960s when he bought a few from a local museum. Soon he was collecting, trading, making and selling them. Throughout the split-level brick home in Bethesda he purchased in 1961, Enten stores about 20,000 buttons in plastic shoe containers and other boxes. He also owns a hand-cranked buttonmaking machine.

"It doesn't seem like a lot to me," he said. "At one point, I had 30,000 buttons."

His wife, Barbara, died in the 1990s, and he has long since retired from selling insurance. Enten and his fiancee, Manee, live off his military disability checks, Social Security and investment income, he says.

Enten says that on a good day, he makes $50 to $75 selling buttons. "This gives me something to do, so I'm not just sitting at home watching television," he said.

A die-hard conservative who jokes that he doesn't even make left turns while driving, Enten sells buttons that range across the political spectrum. Some, like an Obama button with a slash through it or a Bush button that implies the 43rdpresident stole from the poor, he designed and made himself.

The variety, he says, attracts passersby, giving him the chance to make friends and engage in political discourse with people he might not meet otherwise.

"I will talk to anybody," he said. "I just like being out here. This isn't about making money, that's for sure."

Selling buttons has side benefits, too, he says. He met his fiancee and his lawyer that way.

One afternoon last year, Tauber spotted Enten's boards at M and 19th streets NW. Tauber, a political junkie since childhood, was drawn to the colorful displays.

" 'Wow,' I thought. 'This is neat, cool stuff,' " said Tauber, who is a partner at Mayer Brown and has a collection of political buttons at home. "They just spoke to me."

Soon, however, D.C. police were hustling Enten from his location. Tauber helped Enten load the boards into his car and agreed to take on his case for free.

On a recent afternoon, before setting up his boards at 19th and K streets NW, Enten traded jokes with parking enforcement officers and a man selling a newspaper covering homeless issues. They often work the same corners, and they were concerned that Enten hadn't been around lately.

"How are you?" asked Carl Turner, the newspaper vendor, as he gave Enten a hug.

"I'm okay," Enten replied. "I broke a rib in a fall."

Within minutes, Enten began to attract customers.

Eric Wind, a 23-year-old consultant, paid $5 for a button commemorating the end of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1981.

"That is the last of my pieces like that," Enten told him enthusiastically. Ankita Ritwick purchased three multicolored peace buttons. One was emblazoned with a flower and the words, "War is not healthy for children and other living things."

As the 23-year-old handed over $8 for the buttons, Enten explained their place in history. "Back in the '60s and '70s, young people wore these buttons on their backpacks to school," Enten said. "And this button, with the flower, the woman who designed this, she died a few years ago."

A stockbroker asked Enten whether he could find any buttons from Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign.

Enten promised he would try to find a few in his collection. A few days later, he was back at 19th and K, with some Goldwater buttons in a pouch, ready in case the customer returned.

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