Business owners—if they’re worth their salt—are keepers of the oral history of their fields. Part of running a successful business is knowing your competition, which can mean learning about those who came before you. I learned a few things running Fog City News, a newsstand in San Francisco’s financial district, for two decades before closing my shop at the end of 2021.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
To give you an idea of what media consumption was like when I was growing up, during the morning train commute to New York City, the only sound you heard was the rustling of newspaper pages. Long before I became a dealer of periodicals, I was drawn to the printed word. It truly was a thrill for me to spend time at Manhattan newsstands like Hudson News inside Grand Central Terminal and Universal News over by Columbus Circle (now gone). I’ve always wanted to know what was going on in the world, and newsstands gave me a feeling of immediacy with headlines and attention-grabbing covers.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1993, it was puzzling to me that there wasn’t more of a newsstand culture. Living in Los Angeles the year before, I marveled at the block-long newsstands in Hollywood. There was a periodicals culture in the Bay Area too, but it was a little harder to root out. There was Jack’s on Chestnut Street (Jack Barrett closed his shop in 1996), Harold’s on Geary (founded by Philip Rosenberg in the early 1960s, it was bought by Tom Hoey in 1991, who closed it in 2000 to focus on his distribution business, North Area News, now defunct too), and Nick’s Newsstand in the financial district (run by Richard Nano after his brother Nick died).
I would stop to say hello to Rich whenever I passed by his corner at Sutter and Sansome. He greeted everyone with “Hey, babe,” his version of “Hey, kid.” Rich didn’t just sell the local papers, but ones from all over the country. Customers ordered faraway periodicals, and it amazed me that he could manage so many holds in that one little outdoor kiosk of his. When he opened every morning, it was like seeing a clown car unload as he assembled a seemingly endless array of wire racks on the sidewalk.
In 1994, I became a newsstand worker myself when I took a job at Juicy News on Fillmore Street. The atmosphere was different from Nick’s, for sure. The pace was slower, the clientele different (I would never sell so many fancy interior-design magazines ever again). But I got to develop the same familiarity with my customers that Rich did with his.
I realized that what I had always enjoyed about newsstands was not just their products but their atmosphere. If you’re selling periodicals, that means you’re guaranteed to see your customers, well, periodically. When you see someone on a weekly or maybe even a daily basis, you don’t need to spend too much time catching up. You can hear their personal news or discuss world events all in the space of a minute or two. Operating Fog City News, I could see how all those seemingly inconsequential interactions could add up to strong bonds.
Over the years, I always introduced new employees to my regulars because, in essence, that new hire had become part of the store family. I’ve watched customers’ children grow up. I’ve seen patrons change jobs or even move out of the area but continue to stay in touch. Together, we formed a community—in the real world, not online.
We live in a different world now. It saddens me to see how many clerks at other stores are leaning behind the counter staring at their phones. Consumers no longer expect store staff to be knowledgeable. We’ve all grown accustomed to a largely self-service shopping experience.
As for the magazine business itself, mass-market titles like Entertainment Weekly and InStyle have ceased their print runs, while others are cutting back their frequencies. I’ve had many customers over the years gasp at my counter when they found out that their favorite magazine was no longer in print. I understand their pain, but it’s part of the natural order of things, honestly. Dozens (if not hundreds) of new magazines are born each year, an equal number shut down.
Every business owner will admit (or should) that sometimes their survival is due to a little luck. When you think about how much shopping is now dominated by e-commerce and chain stores, it’s hard to imagine how a tiny independent store like mine made it for 22 years. There was one thing working in my favor that I didn’t realize until many years in business: virtually all of the products we sold at Fog City News were immune (or at least resistant) to online shopping. I wish I could claim that was part of some grand plan, but my interests—periodicals, artisan chocolates, greeting cards—just happen to be related in that way. Some people call me old-fashioned for having operated a newsstand in the internet age, but I don’t mind. It paid the bills and earned me customers who weren’t just loyal patrons but lifelong friends. In the end, friendships are really what it’s all about.•