Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Little shop of mags belongs to a dying breed

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 16, 2008


The carpet is worn. The walls are covered by pegboard painted a garish red. Ancient wooden racks are stuffed with glossy magazines.

The shop carries soda and sundries, smokes and sunflower seeds.

An old wooden rack promoting Nielson's products is filled with jujubes and chocolate bars.

A stack of TV Week rests beside the cash register, where handwritten signs warn of identity checks for tobacco purchases.

Coins are placed on a rubber change mat promoting the Wall Street Journal. It dates from a time when the venerable business newspaper was not owned by Rupert Murdoch, who profits from so much sold here.

Overhead, plastic letters spell out L-O-O-K and N-E-W-S-W-E-E-K.

The signs must be at least 37 years old, for that's how long it has been since Look folded, a popular picture-magazine claimed by the popularity of television.

As TV killed some magazines, so the Internet threatens the newsstand.

In Vancouver, the Magpie Magazine Gallery on Commercial Drive shut its doors at the end of April. In Edmonton, a magazine shop called Front Page on Jasper Avenue has announced it will go to the giant remainder bin in the sky after Saturday's close.

The proprietor of this Victoria shop is hanging in. So far.

"We're a dying breed," Bob Streeter says.

City Hall News is my kind of place.

It is a welcome pit stop in the daily routine of many of its customers.

Mr. Streeter was making a candy run to the wholesaler yesterday morning, so Dianne Sumner, a 15-year employee whose own reading choices include murder mysteries and gossip rags, watched the shop.

Here's how one exchange went.

"Good morning," a customer said as he reached for a package of gum before fishing for his wallet. He pulled out a twenty.

"Smokes, too?" she asked.

"Yes, please."

She knew his brand without asking. Barbers and bartenders offer this kind of service, matching customer to desire with a comforting familiarity. She later confessed to being worried about one elderly customer known to come every Thursday to buy the latest issue of The New Yorker. He has not been seen for a month.

Mr. Streeter and Ms. Sumner may not know the names of their patrons, but they do know what they like.

The shop on Douglas Street is a throwback to a time when printed information moved only as fast as the mails. You can buy books of crossword puzzles that would make a simpleton feel like Einstein, and you can buy the latest issue of Le Monde, which would make a genius feel like a moron.

Mr. Streeter is an amiable fellow quick with a quip. He arrives here before the 8 a.m. opening six days a week, retrieving bundles of newsprint to be placed on portable stands at the shop entrance.

Sometimes, he is amazed to be still in business.

If you were in Mr. Streeter's shoes, it might feel as though all levels of government were conspiring to get him to retire.

In the 1990s, the province transferred offices from the downtown core to a new development along the Gorge Waterway. The move left the drug crowd more prominent on the sidewalk. Other clerical jobs were outsourced. When the next-door bank closed, the newsstand was forced to move across Cormorant Street to a space sandwiched between a furniture store and a tax-preparation business.

The latest indignity is the health edict that no tobacco packaging be on display. Sheets of newsprint have been pinned above the cigarette racks.

Some years ago, Chapters opened a giant store just down the street with an extensive selection of magazine titles.

Mr. Streeter has operated this shop since buying it from his father around the time when the Beatles became a phenomenon in 1964. He is a pipefitter by trade, having apprenticed at the Yarrow Shipyards before working on pulp mills in Woodfibre, Gold River and Prince George. Camp life was not for him, though, and he has been moving magazines for nearly a half-century. The shop itself has been in the vicinity of city hall since about 1915.

Mr. Streeter is proud of his stock. Year after year, he is voted the city's best newsstand in a poll conducted by the local chain of community newspapers.

"You name the subject," he boasts, "and we have a magazine title."

Hunting? Check. Hairdos? Check. Hotrods? Vroom.

He carries Hot Rod and Haute Doll. He carries Opera News and Rolling Stone. He carries Ladybug and Ladies' Home Journal.

He carries This England and This Magazine and This Old House. He carries National Geographic and Canadian Geographic and Africa Geographic.

He carries True Detective and Foreign Affairs.

He carries Forbes Investment and the International Socialist Review.

He carries Metalsmith and Mental Floss. He carries Wine Spectator and Salmon & Steelhead Journal.

He carries Bust and Adbusters. He carries Penthouse and House & Garden. He carries girlie mags and The Beaver: Canada's History Magazine.

He carries Surfer's Path and Surfer's Journal.

He carries Marie Claire and Donna Hay and Martha Stewart.

He carries USA Today and the Guardian Weekly and Lapham's Quarterly.

He carries O, W, WD, GQ, and OK!

"You meet so many different and nice people," Mr. Streeter said. "That's what keeps me here. Every walk of life. We get 'em from the very bottom to the very top."

W.A.C. Bennett has been a customer, as has been Ed Broadbent. Actors have unselfconsciously opened magazines to read about themselves at the till. They know when a local enterprise has been profiled in BCBusiness, as someone will have been dispatched to purchase a stack.

Mr. Streeter clings to his shop in the hopes of the neighbourhood being rejuvenated when three surrounding condominium projects open their doors.

He knows he carries what the people desire, whether pop or pop culture.

In a previous location, the shop closed its doors as firefighters battled a fire in an upstairs room. Even as smouldering mattresses were being tossed on the sidewalk, customers banged on the locked door. They wanted their smokes.

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