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Monica's Book Store Won't Budge

To the applause of customers, Bill Kramer stood in the bookstore-eatery he opened 22 years ago and announced he would fight Kenneth Starr's subpoena for Monica Lewinsky's book purchases.

The independent counsel's request has touched a nerve in this city, where librarians picketed Kramer's store after his first reaction indicated incorrectly, he says that he would not resist the subpoena.

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"We educated ourselves on these issues after that first week," Kramer said.

But a sympathetic First Amendment lawyer says he doubts the bookstore has legal grounds for resistance.

"My gut feeling is that bookstores are not in a good position," said Steven Shiffrin, a Cornell University law professor.

He noted that in decisions since the 1970s the Supreme Court "has allowed police and prosecutors without a search warrant, without a subpoena, to go through your trash, to get your mailman to look at outgoing and incoming mail, to get the bank to give up your credit records, get the telephone company to give up a list of calls you receive or make. A bookstore might as well be a fertilizer factory so far as the law is concerned."

Starr, investigating whether President Clinton engaged in sexual activity with Lewinsky and then asked her to lie about it, has been trying to reconstruct all her activities.

[In a related development, the Supreme Court gave the White House until 4:30 p.m. EDT Monday to respond to Starr's dramatic request to bypass an appeals court and resolve his battle with President Clinton over executive privilege. Presidential lawyers huddled Friday to devise a response.]

According to sources familiar with the investigation, Lewinsky received a copy of Walt Whitman's classic poem, Leaves of Grass, from Clinton, and prosecutors are trying to determine if her own purchases included Nicholas Baker's steamy novel about phone sex, Vox.

In Chicago, where Book Expo America, the world's largest convention of English language book publishers and sellers is about to begin, Topic A was the Starr subpoena of Lewinsky's purchases from the Barnes & Noble store in Georgetown and from Kramerbooks & Afterwords near Washington's DuPont Circle, a store that was a pioneer in selling latte along with literature.

"This is the biggest controversy in the nine years of this foundation's existence," said Chris Finan, president of the American Bookseller Foundation for Free Expression. "This strikes close to home."

Some convention-goers, as well as some clerks in Kramer's store here, wore black T-shirts with gold ettering that read, "Subpoenaed for Book Selling."

Book fights usually involve what schools and libraries make available to youngsters, not what stores sell to adults. But Washington has been sensitive to such matters since October 1988, when conservatives and liberals alike denounced City Paper, an alternative weekly, for printing a list of the video rentals of conservative Robert Bork, then a nominee for the Supreme Court.

In response, Congress and a number of states enacted laws making such disclosures illegal. But they apply only to video records, not book purchases.

Kramer went before a bank of microphones and television cameras to announce that, despite a partial victory last month, he would fight "the government's invasion of our customers' privacy" and appeal a federal judge's ruling. He said legal costs so far exceed $100,000 and he is getting financial help from others in the industry.

The partial victory came in an order from Judge Norma Holloway Johnson narrowing Starr's broad original subpoena, which apparently sought a list of books charged to Lewinsky's credit card since November 1995.

The judge quoted Supreme Court Justice William Douglas' 1963 opinion that "once the government can demand of a publisher the names of the purchasers of his publications, the free press as we know it disappears."

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