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Few Queue Up to Replace Paris Kiosk Operators

Employment: They spend long hours on their feet and get few vacations. Young people don't aspire to the newsstand jobs.

September 15, 2002|ANGELA DOLAND | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

PARIS — Jean-Louis Grimal starts work at 5 a.m. inside his newsstand and closes shop 15 hours later. He eats lunch in the few square feet behind the cluttered counter. He doesn't take breaks.

He's even there every holiday, except for the May Day celebration for workers.

"It's a hard life," said Grimal, who has spent 30 years working in the city's news kiosks -- the green metal huts that are almost as emblematic of the Paris streets as the wrought-iron Art Nouveau signs that beckon commuters into the subway.

Grimal is planning to retire at the end of the year, and there might be no one to replace him.

As Paris kiosk workers retire or quit, few young people are applying for the jobs. In just three years, the number of kiosks in the capital has dropped from about 370 to 310.

Grimal, like other kiosk keepers, is paid solely on commission. He spends entire days on his feet.

The job does have its attractions: You're your own boss. You're part of the neighborhood's life and rhythms. And you get to read all the papers and magazines you want.

But in a country where the standard workweek has been shortened to 35 hours, few are attracted to a trade that requires twice as many.

"In our society, people have more vacations and work less," said Stephane Bribard, spokesman for NMPP, a French press distribution service. For kiosk vendors, "it's just the opposite."

It's also getting harder to earn money. In France, as elsewhere, the printed press is losing consumers to TV and Internet news.

There's also a new threat -- the arrival of free papers, financed solely by advertising and filled with celebrity and sports news. Two made their debut earlier this year.

One Parisian vendor, Gwenael Bizien, says his sales of daily newspapers have dropped 15% to 20% since free papers became available. He watches, irate, as newsboys for the free papers set up their carts every day at a subway exit just a few steps from his stand.

"When someone's giving you a paper, why would you buy one?" Bizien asked.

Faced with all these problems, unions, distributors and City Hall -- which owns the news kiosks and rents them out -- are working on ways to keep them open.

The committee has come up with an aid package for newsstands with the lowest revenues. But that's only a short-term solution.

Unions say those who run the newsstands need to be reimbursed more for each sale. As things stand, the kiosks get a commission of about 18% per sale. In contrast, the Relay news chain, which has stores in airports and train stations, earns more than 30%.

Another problem: The existing system makes it hard for young people to break into the business.

Newsstand applicants need to show savings of about $15,000 to prove to City Hall that they can afford to stock a kiosk. And newcomers are offered newsstands that nobody else wants because they're not lucrative.

Not all European news vendors are under the same pressures. Greece has 11,000 kiosks, and some even operate around-the-clock. In the Hungarian capital of Budapest, run-down communist-era newsstands are being replaced with decorative stands whose design was chosen in a city-sponsored competition.

Even in Paris, some kiosks in the capital's wealthy, busy western neighborhoods are quite profitable. A few successful kiosk keepers can even afford to hire an employee so they can cut their hours; others share the job with their spouse.

It takes years to build the seniority to win a choice spot. After 17 years in the business, Bizien has a well-placed kiosk that brings him substantially more than the $570 a month he earned in his first few jobs.

But the hours are still long, and sometimes he gets frustrated by little things. On a recent afternoon, three people in a row stopped to ask for directions without buying anything.

In one case, Bizien wasn't even able to point the way.

"When do I ever get a chance to get to know the neighborhood?" he asked. "I'm always at work."

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