Books for sale near Clark Park

Clark Park on Saturdays is the place to go if you’re looking for used books. Each weekend, a man who lives nearby sets up a veritable Barnes and Noble in front of his house. There are so many tomes in his collection that it spills off his porch and onto the sidewalk — which is also why he’s wary of talking about it.

“It’s not technically legal,” he said on a recent Saturday morning. “I think you’re only allowed to sell from your porch.”

Is it really against the rules to set up a mini marketplace outside your home in Philadelphia? What about yard sales — are people inadvertently breaking the law when they set out unwanted trinkets after spring cleaning or before a move? How about kids’ lemonade stands?

The answer, it turns out, is not entirely clear.

Per the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections, if the sale happens just once in a while, and you use “common sense,” you likely won’t be bothered. But if you do it on the regular (like the Clark Park book man), you do need a special permit and license — and you can’t be on a street where it’s prohibited.

One-off sales are mostly fine

There are no official “yard sale rules” written in the city’s code or a special permit designated for yard sales.

Why not? Because “L&I is too bogged down with everything else that is going on in Philadelphia,” said department spokesperson Karen Guss.

The rule of thumb, Guss explained, is to use common sense and to remember that we need to live comfortably as a society — which means being allowed to sell your extra junk on your property before moving or to make space.

She even affirmed that as far as L&I is concerned, children should be encouraged to get entrepreneurial and sell lemonade or cookies for whatever important cause they may be saving up for — even if that “cause” is a new puppy or a Nintendo Switch.

“I say, good for them for taking on that responsibility,” Guss said. (Was that a subtle, indirect middle finger to the Permit Patties out there?)

A one-off sale, however, is not a free-for-all. Having common sense, Guss clarified, means for example, not blocking a pedestrian’s right of way, and leaving at least six feet of space for passersby, just like the city’s sidewalk cafe seating is supposed to.

But if it becomes a regular thing, rules apply

If what you’re really doing is running a “used goods business” from your property, then you could be breaking zoning laws.

To find out if you’re in a neighborhood where you can have a re-sell business from your property, you first need to check out whether or not your address lies within the boundaries of the Prohibited Streets list.

There are 17 pages worth of streets that the City has blocked from sidewalk sales and, per Guss, there’s often no “rhyme or reason” to which streets make the cut and which do not. It all boils down to zoning districts, which each come with their own set of regulations as adopted and amended by City Council and as delineated by Title 14 of the Philadelphia Code.

An uncomplicated way to find out whether or not your home is in a sales-friendly zone is by checking out the City’s OpenMaps tool.

Books for sale near Clark Park (a setup that likely requires a license) Credit: Mónica Zorrilla / Billy Penn

Then, there’s the case of selling in Special Vending Districts, which entails applying for a Neighborhood Vending District License ((Revenue Code 3288). Guss admitted this license is notoriously tricky to get approved in these districts, which include:

  • Central Germantown Business District
  • University City Business District
  • North Front Street
  • 52nd Street Business District for Sidewalk Vending
  • Germantown Corridor Business District
  • Oregon Avenue Business Corridor District
  • Temple University

The total cost of applying is $50. In the rare chance that you’re given the seal of approval, you have to pay $330 (not including the application fee).

If, after you’ve checked whether or not you’re in a Prohibited Streets zone or in a Special Vending District zone, you find yourself in the clear, the next step to legitimizing your business is by getting a free Commercial Activity License. 

Simple enough, right? *buzzer sound* Eh, wrong. There are loads of subcategories to consider and other technicalities, Guss attempted to paraphrase, such as if you’re planning on selling from a single-family residential unit or from a mixed-use property building. Or if you’re in a zone with certain restrictions for certain residences, which again, can all be found in Title 14 and on OpenMaps.

If you’re in a zone that calls for further permits, you’ll probably wind up applying for a Use Registration Permit ($100).

How about if you’re planning on selling on a sidewalk in front of your property? This also has a special permit — the Sidewalk Sales License ($330) — which necessitates a prior Commercial Activity License and a Use Registration Permit.

All of the licenses previously mentioned do make applicants give their Federal Employer Identification Number or their SSN, as well as their City of Philadelphia Tax Account Number.

With all of these regulations in place, it’s no wonder that many Philadelphians have ditched the nostalgic allure of a neighborly sale and cut straight to the chase online.