Rubble Photos for Sale
The gray market of Ground Zero memorabilia.
Manuel and other vendors are cagey about where they get the books, but a few names come up. One is Mun Lee, a Korean who once ran a printing operation out of a Fulton Street store near Ground Zero. Curtis Hackett, the owner of a barbershop that shares space in the building, says Lee ran several businesses there, including a tattoo parlor and a nail salon. But the space where Lee's photo lab used to be is empty, carpet peeled back, pipes jutting from the walls. Lee was evicted from the building in 2009. He owed his landlord $79,000 in back rent, according to court documents. Control of the book trade has since passed to a Turk named Huseyin Gulgu, whose name the vendors protect zealously. When reached by phone, Gulgu acknowledges that he makes the books, then hangs up.
I got Gulgu's number from Mark Anthony Niemczyk, the most eccentric huckster at Ground Zero. A mustachioed gargoyle from Tinton Falls, N.J., Niemczyk claims to be both a former Navy SEAL (although other Navy SEALs dispute that) and a firefighter who worked on the WTC rubble pile. He drives a customized red Ford F-150 pickup adorned with the names of the firefighters killed in 9/11. On the back of the truck is an image of the planes hitting the towers and a rotating series of taglines. (Recent entries include "Everything I ever needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11" and the Bin Laden-themed "We didn't forget. We got him!!!")
The truck is a honeypot for tourists, whom Niemczyk and his son costume in firefighting gear and photograph smiling in front of Ground Zero. Niemczyk also has a table where he sells T-shirts and other souvenirs, including his own slicker and more expensive 9/11 picture books. He staffs the table with a deaf woman and claims his profits go to a Connecticut charity called High Hopes that offers therapeutic horse riding for disabled people and is favored by the mother of one of the deceased firefighters. But High Hopes reports that Niemczyk has never donated any money.
As much as the immigrant street vendors respect his guile, they loathe Niemczyk personally. The feeling is mutual. "I call them stinkbombs," Niemczyk says of the immigrant vendors. "They're not even American. That burns my ass."
How much could it really burn? When Niemczyk ran out of his books one day, he tracked down Gulgu's middleman, Ramazah Sahin. Niemczyk bought 20 "stinkbomb" books from Sahin for $1.25 each. He sold all of them in an hour, charging $10 apiece. At the end of the day, Sahin came back. Niemczyk wanted more product. The two men agreed to go into business together and shook hands behind Niemczyk's truck, in front of the image of planes hitting the Twin Towers. Here was America.
Luke O’Brien is a writer at Deadspin.