Newsstands suffer from city ordinance, digital age
The sidewalk businesses are banned from selling any products other than periodicals, which, along with the rise of digital media, is making it increasingly difficult to stay afloat.
Robert Kelly, right, owner of a Los Feliz newsstand hopes a revised city code will allow newsstand owners to sell chips, soda, candy and other snacks in an effort to augment their dwindling income. (Photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times / July 17, 2011)
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
Newsstand owner Robert Kelly is well aware that he's not in the most profitable of businesses these days.
But, at 58, he says it's too late to get out of the print business. Plus, he enjoys having a front-row seat to the comings and goings in Los Feliz.
Kelly has become a fixture at the corner of Vermont and Melbourne avenues, where he has operated his newsstand for 11 years, greeting neighbors and regulars by name and instinctively reaching for their favorite magazine or newspaper when they approach.
Kelly, a former accountant, has tracked his lost sales as print media continue to slump, a constant worry since the sidewalk business is his sole source of income.
For years, he made up for the lost revenue by hawking soda, bottled water, chips and other sundries. That is, until a code enforcement officer halted that practice over a year ago.
Kelly said he had no idea he was violating an old city ordinance that restricts newsstands to selling only periodicals.
"I was shocked," said Kelly, who grew up near San Francisco and lives in an apartment above his newsstand. "The ordinance was never enforced."
Though it was a blow to his bottom line, Kelly said he immediately removed all the snacks and drinks. Since then, he has fought to get the city to revise the ordinance.
Last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes Los Feliz, proposed amending the decades-old ordinance, saying he supports preserving newsstands because they contribute to a community's identity.
"Even with the dramatic change in print media, there's nothing like a headline popping out in the street," LaBonge said. "There's nothing like the smell of fresh ink."
He predicts the City Council will support the change and will expedite it so Kelly and others can immediately start selling snacks and sodas again. "Every day counts for these newsstands owners," LaBonge said.
In their heyday, newsstands dotted the streets of Los Angeles. The bustling places were stocked with newspapers that carried bold, screaming headlines to attract the eyes of would-be readers. But that was before the Internet helped reshape the landscape.
Now, newsstands are a rarity in the city, many having shuttered years ago. Others, like World Book & News, which has operated since at least the 1930s, are struggling.
"We're just a little business just trying to hang in there," said Diz McNally, the day manager at the Hollywood newsstand.
"I refuse to acknowledge the Internet," McNally said, occasionally pausing to greet passersby by name. "People still like the feel of the paper."
On this busy corner, a center for tourists along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, McNally, a Boston native, said the stand attracts a wide variety of customers.
Fashionistas scoop up Vogue magazines from India, France and Italy. Angelenos and East Coast transplants ensure the stand always sells out of the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the New York Post—"lots of New Yorkers in L.A.," she said. And, certain guys who occasionally overstay their welcome by spending too much time in the pornography section are kicked out by McNally.
Amid funny tales of drunkards who stumble by, McNally, naming magazines that have folded, said the advance of the digital age has hurt print publications during her five years working the stand.
Kelly, too, laments the change and said the ordinance may not be a big deal to most, but to him and others in his position, it means helping preserve his only livelihood.
"It's been really tough," he said. "That extra bit would help pay the bills."