Magazine | June 13, 2016, Issue

Black and White and Read: All Over

(Steve Lewis Stock)

I have always disliked our nation’s capital. Among its myriad deficiencies, exemplifying the stage-set quality of life that is lived there, is the absence of newsstands. I remember, one of the very first times I visited as an adult, thinking that I wanted to pick up a paper, and all I could find were rows of mean metal sidewalk boxes, with self-serve slots for quarters. Half the time, it seemed, the box you opened was empty and you lost your quarter. They were separate, small, and ugly. Altogether, the effect was sterile. They made the sidewalk they decorated blank, like a moving walkway in an airport.

The city, by contrast, had newsstands. The vendor sat inside, surrounded by an array of merchandise, like an idol in a temple festooned with offerings. The places were not clean, and neither often were their human attendants. But temples and other houses of worship can be pretty funky too. They are the resorts of humanity. People (mostly women) pray to make life better; people (mostly men) bought newspapers to see what life was that day.

Why would anyone want to use a newsstand? The pleasure of service counts for something. Thousands at your bidding do not speed, but this man behind his counter will, if you give him a dollar. Newsstands made a show of plenitude. Their wares were on display, from broadsheet seriousness to tabloid shout. Newsstands made you feel on top of things, even when you were in motion. Hurrying to an appointment, plunging into a subway, you could tell at a glance, even if you did not spring for a paper, what the headlines were. Just as promoters of plays used to cover the board walls around construction sites with one, two, three, ten, 20 posters, to satisfy the eye on the move, so a scattering of newsstands along your daily commute served the same function.

But now the city is becoming like the nation’s capital, as newsstands slowly disappear. I first noticed it when a fine one, outside one of the subway entrances alongside my neighborhood park, converted to a shop for Turkish pies. That’s a nice börek, but it doesn’t tell me how much the Yanks lost by. A spokesman for the newsstand operators’ association — yes, there is such a thing: in the city you must stand together or be crushed — says the number of newsstands has dropped from a high of 1,500 at mid century to 300-some now. Stand together and be crushed.

The newsstands that remain struggle to do their work. I recently had occasion to pick up a copy of my old weekly newspaper. I wrote for it for 20 years, most recently nine years ago. I used to buy it, to savor the pleasure of reading myself in print, at one of the local newsstands. So I made the diminished circuit. Apart from the defector to Turkish cuisine, there are still a handful of newsstands in my vicinity, chiefly because the local subway station is an octopus, flinging out six lines to four boroughs. I passed by one stand without bothering to ask: The goods on display were all snacks and drinks. The vendors at the next two had never heard of the weekly. The vendor at the fourth recalled it with difficulty, like a lost love or an old injury, and even produced a dingy copy, but it was a week old. A negative grand slam. Then I thought to try a tobacco-and-vape shop I sometimes pass, stirred by memories of magazine stores that once also sold cigars. Home run: Here was a wall of glossy magazines and, on a shelf at the foot of the front counter, a row of newspapers, including the desired weekly. You can still get reading material in the city — from traffickers in cancer-delivery systems. Our previous mayor, the health crusader, would shrug: He made his money from a financial-data terminal.

I went back to the fourth newsstand, to inspect its wares more carefully. There was a modest selection of magazines: the décolletage of starlets; bodybuilders; last and least, news. There were the daily papers, the two broadsheets and the two tabloids, spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex. There were foreign-language papers, three in Spanish, one in Russian (if there are newsstands in the outer boroughs, take your Berlitz library). There was candy, gum, and breath mints; a notice that if you bought tobacco you would be carded; an ATM.

There are some other options for printed reading material. In the great train and bus stations, there are large shops where you really can get everything periodical, and a selection of best-sellers, for those long rides back to Long Island, Jersey, or Cheever-land. And when you go out in the morning rush hour you can still be greeted, at the larger subway stations, by men standing, or sitting on milk cartons, next to stacks of tabloids (election, star sex, box score: one and done).

It is all going because print is going. Recitation gave us Homer (and Shakespeare: they are plays first, texts second). Print gave us the Bible for laymen, Pamela, Waverley, and Fifty Shades of Grey. And what will the blue pool, infinity in the palm of your hand, give us?

I just got my first smartphone. So far I have made three calls, and sent two messages, both tests. I reserve a pants pocket to carry it in — wallets, keys, change bulging the other. But no one knows the number except my wife; I do not plan to give it out. I got it only because it seemed to be inevitable. Why am I so reluctant to use it? Is it fear of the Orange Man and his posse? Of endless selfies? Of sitting, hunched at table, texting back and forth about what you/I are/am eating and where? Certainly I don’t expect to find anything to read.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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