What does the term "newsboy" mean to you?
Right here in downtown Seattle are half a dozen old-time newsstands, the kind that tend to be made of wood and painted green or brown, with a simple roof for shelter in a downpour, and a hard-edged lean-to look. Spare and Spartan, such booths have existed here since at least 1919. But the news hawkers are in deep danger of disappearing forever … potentially overnight.
Just as he closed for the day I met with one of the men in the downtown newsstands, peak-chinned and hawklike, green-eyed, small, lithe and sharp as a news hawker should be.
We sipped two dollars worth of coffee at the Turf near First in the Market's part of downtown as he told me about his particular newsstand at Third and Union in front of the old Woolworth's building.
"My name is Pat Hickey. I've been here since August of 1975." Twenty-eight years hawking papers from inside an old run-down newsstand. "I manage the stand. My boss is Dennis Hogan.
"It was put up in 1919. The legendary Frank Turco opened up the stand. He ran it until his death in 1966. There have been 85 years of continuous service on this corner.
"Some of our customers are wealthy men who own horses and depend on us to sell their racing forms. We make most of our money selling the racing forms.
"When they built the bus tunnel and narrowed Third Avenue, we lost most of our car trade and never got it back."
Times and PI sales have fallen off pretty badly over the years on account of so many vending racks on all the downtown corners.
"You see, people do not depend on newspapers anymore, because they get their news off the television. The truth of the matter is that the downtown newsstand, for decades a fixture in all the major American cities, is going the way of the dinosaur. "
I interrupted Hickey with "I caught you just in time!"
"Well, sort of. Due to the fifteen cents profit per paper. It goes to the dealer or the owner of the vending rack. Ten cents is the wholesale price. We buy it for ten cents and we sell it for twenty-five, hence the fifteen cent profit. "
To clear fifteen dollars one would have to sell 100 papers.
"In the old days selling that many papers was nothing. Now to sell 100, one would have to have hot headlines or a great day."
Frank Turco, Hickey told me, was middle-aged when he founded the first downtown newsstands.
"He came out from Pittsburgh, PA and he lost a leg in a train accident in Montana. He was quite an industrial entrepreneur. In not too many years, he had newsstands over a good portion of downtown Seattle."
For a long time, he was one of downtown's most recognizable faces; people in the thousands knew him by sight. In the 1940's he ran for city council as a reform candidate.
"A reform candidate is one who's going to, you know, radically reform the whole system. Politics in the 40s were very corrupt," Hickey stated significantly. "Frank Turco was very involved in union politics. He was the head of Seattle's newsboy union.
"It was sort of a closet union … it was set up for the benefit of the union to make money off the newsboys who made peanuts for money. Turco was a newsboy and believed in justice for the working man. You gotta handle that with a little more skill. He was exploiting the newsboys. "
Too soon, Hickey had to get back to his beloved newsstand.
"The idea is, you're in a dinosaur, and you may be catching the tail end of something that really has a very long history."
Downtown newsstands are almost as old as the cities. Over the years there have been hundreds of colorful newspaper vendors, such as PI Mary, an eccentric old lady who sold papers down on First. She went back to the Second World War. She would boldly go right into the First Avenue bars, and directly sell papers to the customers.
"We've definitely been a part of the fabric of downtown life. Unfortunately, most of the newsboys have been pushing up roses for a long, long time," Hickey sighed.
When I left the newsstand, an unknown gambler in the booth, whispering to Hickey, "IM Anonymous" by name, closed its green doors at me as a definitive sign-off.