When Eric Hunting reaches for a book these days, he feels as if he’s picking up a cigarette in violation of a vow to quit smoking.
The Cerrillos resident used to love reading. Not anymore. Years of working as a book scout — someone who finds and buys secondhand textbooks for publishing wholesalers — has killed that passion.
His job, which he performs on his computer in the living room of the small adobe house he rents in the village of Cerrillos, has wrought a much larger crisis: The publishing giants Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, charging him with copyright and trademark infringement and trademark counterfeiting.
The suit, filed by the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Oppenheim + Zebrak, also claims Hunting and his employee, David Toone of Albuquerque, buy books — often fakes — at the lowest price possible and resell them for a substantial profit, cutting into the income of the textbook authors and publishers in the process.
Hunting denies all of that. But without the financial wherewithal to combat the lawsuit, he did almost nothing in response, resulting in the federal court issuing a default judgment in favor of the publishers for $1.4 million — plus interest — earlier this year.
“It’s caused a lot of stress,” Hunting said in a recent interview at his home. “The case they made against me is completely made up.”
The Brooklyn-born Hunting, who has lived in Cerrillos for about 10 years, suffers from a respiratory disease and chemical sensitivity, challenges that have made finding a job difficult and have led him to move into an almost off-the-grid home built of organic materials.
His friend Toone got Hunting involved in online book buying for various publishing wholesalers around the country.
“This is my first and really only full-time job,” Hunting said.
He said the wholesalers send him book lists, and it is his job to buy as many as he can in quantity for them. There is no minimum sale in these transactions, he said — only a maximum number of books that the wholesalers want. He estimates he buys somewhere between 150 and 300 books per month, sometimes in small bunches of five or six per title and usually no more than 25 to 30 at once. The books are shipped into office space he rents in Albuquerque and are then mailed out to his clients.
He said he has never made more than $40,000 in any given year in this enterprise. In 2014 — the year his troubles began — he didn’t even break even.
That’s the year he bought some books from a source in Colorado that found their way from one of his wholesale clients to the plaintiffs, who deemed them counterfeits. The publishers’ lawsuit contends that starting in June 2014, Hunting and Toone began distributing counterfeit copies of their textbooks. “At least four of Defendants’ customers caught them selling pirated books,” the suit says.
Hunting said that sort of thing does happen, but it is “very rare.”
“They are usually easy to spot. They are obviously made of inferior quality,” he said. He sends those books back, occasionally getting financially burned in the process.
But the Colorado books, he said, “were completely indistinguishable from anything I had seen before.”
He said pressure from the big publishing houses has driven the wholesalers to send any and all potentially counterfeit books to those publishers to inspect and confiscate or approve.
Hunting also said wholesale used-book buying and selling has been going on for decades without affecting the finances of the big publishers.
His efforts to get legal help have gone nowhere, he said. He hired attorney Larry Donahue of the Law 4 Small Business firm in Albuquerque last year, but he ran out of money before Donahue could gain any traction in the case. Donahue, in a recent phone interview, confirmed Hunting had hired him but declined to comment further.
Hunting said he has reached out to the New Mexico branch of the American Civil Liberties Union for help but has not heard back from the organization. Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the ACLU in New Mexico, said Hunting did file a complaint and the organization responded by mail, saying that while it is concerned about his situation, it cannot help him with legal representation in a Massachusetts case, especially since the case does not involve civil liberty violations.
Kerry Mustico, the Oppenheim + Zebrak attorney who filed the lawsuit, did not return an email or phone call seeking comment.
Hunting said in his few dealings on the phone with that law firm, representatives basically told him, “Shut up and pay.”
But the suit hasn’t stopped him from working as a book scout. Nor have his more loyal wholesalers abandoned him, he said.
Efforts to reach representatives from three of those companies for comment — Follett, MBS Textbook Exchange and Tichener College Textbook Co. — were unsuccessful.
Hunting, who said he pays $1,000 a month in rent for his home in Cerrillos, said his greatest fear is being homeless, given he has to live in a toxin-free environment. He said he is trying to save up enough money to build a fab lab — a small, digital fabrication laboratory — and start his own alternative-design furniture.
For now, he’s not sure what he will do to make that dream happen. “I want to get someone to write a letter to the judge asking that the fine be eliminated, or file an appeal,” he said. “But unless I can find someone to work pro bono … ”
He doesn’t understand why he has been targeted by the publishers and wonders if it’s part of a new movement to shut out the little guy in the used-textbook business.
“We’ve been tolerated since the 1920s,” he said.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.