Note: This post introduces a new feature on my blog: pictures that you can click on for higher resolution versions! Go ahead, try it!
Walking by the intersection of Third and Pike on Monday I noticed that the ratty little blue metal pill-shaped news kiosk that has sat mostly unused for years on the sidewalk there had been replaced by a sleek new fixture, and that it was open for business. This is Turco’s Last Stand.
The airy new version of the kiosk is the latest manifestation of a business that has been operating here for 90 years. I stopped in to introduce myself to Ben Gant, owner. Ben has been written up more than once in local papers because he is doing the unthinkable in a world that is now getting most of its news from MSN and other online sources. He has opened, actually reopened, the little kiosk that has occupied these few squares of sidewalk since 1919. Frank Turco opened a news kiosk here that year and ran it for some 47 years, until he died in 1966. Others have carried on the tradition, and Ben is the current torchbearer, loudly proffering paper-based news media and chatting up the locals. He also sells hot dogs, ice cream and soft drinks from plastic coolers.
Turco was an interesting figure who used his little kiosk, which changed its physical shape many times over the decades, to promote civic activism and his idea of the American way, in particular the efforts of the Labor party, and he was instrumental in 1919′s famous labor strike here in Seattle. He later ran for mayor proudly stating “not endorsed by any group”.
But I’m not here to talk Turco. If you want to know more about this legendary man, see Ben’s website (http://www.turcoslaststand.com/TLS/Home.html). I’m not even that interested in the Labor party at this juncture, though I know the history of labor’s struggles in Seattle is rich indeed. I was more interested in simply supporting Ben’s effort to keep this kiosk alive in the face of a sincere wish by the city that it would go away.
It was a sunny day and Ben was hawking the Seattle Times outside the kiosk. Bob was there too (Bob’s an employee, but not the one in the above picture, which I took the next day). Ben told me that he isn’t really making enough money to pay people yet, and the other “employees” are mostly people who are willing to work for little or nothing.
Ben is talkative and converstations with him cover a lot of territory quickly. We got to talking about how there are no more barrista carts on the sidewalks anywhere. A decade ago they were everywhere, I recalled. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an espresso cart. Ben explained that it’s the way Starbucks negotiates for spaces to lease.
“When they want to open a location, they don’t want any coffee vendors on the sidewalk. If an espresso cart was paying the owner of the property 300 bucks to be on the sidewalk, Starbuck’s comes in and says ‘we’ll give you 500 bucks to get rid of the espresso cart.’ They’re vicious. Real Seattleites hate Starbucks. They know how they operate.”
The topic shifted to his kiosk, which doesn’t bother Starbuck’s at all (there’s an installation of the world’s most famous roaster across the street) but is a severe irritant to the city’s transportation department, which has jurisdiction over what happens on sidewalks. I’m all for anything that enriches sidewalk life, as you know, and it seems to me that people gathering to talk about current events and maybe lower a dog or a soda is a good thing. I’ve been aware for a little while that this little kiosk was endangered. The city claimed that Ben hardly ever opened it, and that it was mainly an eyesore in the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t know what it means when people say “eyesore”. Or rather, I fear the kind of world envisioned by people who use the word. Their eyes are sore because they have blinded themselves to the value of smallness and intimacy, of history, and of the gradual decay that is a natural part of — rather the counterpart to — the rise of things. In very fact, the old booth looked like the conning tower of a World War II-era submarine.
A year or so ago the city served Ben notice that the kiosk had to go…unless he wanted to apply for a permit (the kiosk was in violation of three city codes: one for being operated without a permit, one for being affixed to the pavement without a permit, and one for not being kept in good repair¹). Ben was willing to jump through the hoops. The city was willing to give him a chance. Good for everyone.
“The city doesn’t really want me around,” Ben said. But after a year or so of struggle they allowed him to replace the old sheet metal booth with a swanky new glass and steel affair designed by a local architect, one of Ben’s several champion/benefactors. The thoughtful design puts the large glass portions to the north end of the kiosk to admit light, while the hot, sunny south side is made of steel to shade those inside. The roof is angled for drainage. It’s a jaunty little joint now, a sight for sore eyes.
Ben noted that the city only grudgingly allows sidewalk businesses. “I think things have got to change, though, in this kind of economy. I mean, people have to do SOMEthing to make a living, you know? Businesses just starting out don’t want to have to lease space in a commercial building just to see if they really want to go for it. You know, $30,000 just to get your feet wet? There are a whole bunch of pirate hot dog vendors that come out at night, little guys with carts. The Health Department is closed at night, so they don’t have their inspectors out. “
Part of the function of the stand is to serve as a museum to Frank Turko and to the Labor struggle. Partly he wants to engage people in a conversation about their town. One gets the sense that the sale of newspapers here is not really the central point (a fact missed by the surprisingly numerous online commenters who expressed in often foul language their opinion that newspapers, news kiosks, and Ben are all obsolete), but if they sell some news, that’s cool too. Ben carries the Seattle Times, the New York Times (I saw the National edition, not sure if he has the west coast edition), the Wall Street Journal, and several local newspapers (the Ballard News-Tribune, the West Seattle Herald and other Robinson neighborhood papers). He’s waiting for other papers to respond to his requests for vendor contracts, and he hopes also to have news magazines.
“We might carry a few entertainment magazines if they move quickly,” Ben said. “But mainly news. It’s a newsstand. Let me know if there are any newspapers or magazines you want me to carry.” This invitation struck me as insanely optimistic, since it looks like he’s barely able to get any newspapers except the three you’d expect to see here. But what do I know? He doesn’t seem like a person who has any fear of failure. Ben makes the little money he does by selling copies of the U.S. Constitution for $5.
“Hey, we forgot to put the sign on!” he said when I asked how long he’d been open, which is a couple months. He reached into the booth and pulled the chain on the OPEN sign so that it lit up in a clean new neon red. Bob said, “Oh, I thought I turned it on.” The grand opening will be, fittingly, on Labor Day weekend.
A man in a business suit came up to buy a hot dog and Bob went inside to dish it up. Ben stayed outside talking with me. He found the old booth claustrophobic, and prefers to remain on the outside of even the new one. Ben actively engages the people who come within earshot of the kiosk, like the newsboys of old whose tradition he carries on. I went over there the next day, too, when the headline was about how swine flu is poised to make 50% of Americans sick this year. Ben was holding out the paper to passersby and announcing the dread scenario with a smile. When he saw me he nodded and started instantly chattering about the predicted pandemic.
“Swine flu for me and you. That’s what this headline should have been. Or maybe ‘Swine Flu for Me OR You’, since it’s fifty percent.”
I laughed and shook his hand. (I like shaking hands with people on the street. Yes, it’s old fashioned. I’m getting to be a fogey. Say what you will, it makes me feel like I’m part of my city). “Are you ready for that?”
“No way,” he chuffed. “I’ve got catastrophic coverage, but that won’t help with this. I’ll have to walk off the swine flu.”