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Seattle vendor wants kiosk to stand for something

Where the city sees an eyesore, he envisions a tribute to labor history.

August 11, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — They were a distasteful breed, all in all, the loud-mouthed young hustlers who sold newspapers on this city's street corners, and when the 11- and 12-year-old newsboys got driven out in the early part of the last century, the old men and toothless reprobates who replaced them were scarcely any better.

"In every condition of decrepitude, some with two crutches, some with one, some with but one arm, some partially blind and some totally blind," a county judge wrote in 1937. Still, he allowed, they had "manhood enough to stand on street corners day and night, freezing cold and storm, to sell newspapers for pennies, rather than beg, which, from the evidence, would in some instances be equally or more remunerative."

Gradually, the old metal shacks that were the boutiques of the news gave way to vending machines and home delivery; the old news wretches died; selling newspapers on the street became a license to go broke.

Enter Benjamin Gant, whose narrow, blue-metal kiosk at the corner of Pike Street and Third Avenue, said to be the last surviving corner newsstand in Seattle, sells newspapers (well, most of them are free), hot coffee, soft drinks and copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence (at $5 apiece, these are Gant's real profit engine).

"If you can keep a level head in all This Confusion, then you just don't understand the Situation," says a sign posted prominently on one wall.

Gant, 28, is battling with the city over whether his 87-year-old newsstand -- one of the oldest in Seattle, where the city's most famous news vendor, the one-legged, trumpet-mouthed labor activist and Newsboys Union founder Frank Turco sold papers for 47 years -- should be razed as an eyesore.

The city and some neighboring merchants are leaning toward the affirmative; Gant is launching a last-ditch effort to save his 6-by-6-foot kiosk by turning it into a memorial for Turco and, by extension, the early 20th century labor union movement that briefly turned Seattle into what many thought would become, in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the next flash point in a world workers' revolt.

"This guy was an American hero. In 1961, he was bringing up deforestation being a major issue, he was talking about government not representing people's interests, he was talking about jobs being lost to outsourcing, about juvenile delinquency happening because both parents have to work. Well, these are all things that have come to pass," Gant said.

"I sit there in my newsstand and I think about the Constitution and all the terrible things that are going on, and it seems like bringing issues to the table will be my contribution to mankind," Gant said one recent afternoon at a nearby Starbucks, which he normally refuses to patronize, except they give him free hot water for tea.

The original Seattle newsboys, like those who famously did battle in New York by striking against Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst at the end of the 19th century, were making barely 2 cents on every nickel paper.

The creation of the Seattle Newsboys Union in 1892 helped impose order among the squabbling hawkers by setting up a system that gave union members exclusive access to certain street corners, according to Roger Simpson, a communications professor at the University of Washington who has written a short history of the newsboys, "How Hustler Democracy Lost to the Power of Property."

Eventually, with anti-child-labor movements and dwindling profitability, old-timers like Turco, "Whistling Pete" (whose corner was First and Madison) and "Blind Harry" (First and Pine) took over from the boys.

Turco, whose death in 1965 spawned long, affectionate obituaries, was an outspoken national delegate to the American Federation of Labor and a participant in what became a defining moment of organized labor in Seattle and America: the 1919 Seattle general strike.

It was the first time in America that an entire city had essentially quit working, and the nearly weeklong strike was seen -- either fearfully or hopefully, depending on the point of view -- as the first shot in an American workers' revolution. It wasn't; but it did prove to be the opening salvo in a period of labor unrest that saw major strikes paralyze the coal, steel and meatpacking industries in cities across the country.

Gant bought the newsstand for $3,000 in 2002, when he was selling subscriptions to the Seattle Times under contract. Only then did he begin to learn about its former proprietor and discover an affinity between Turco's populist ideals and his own, spawned in part, no doubt, by his mother, who as a young woman joined the Freedom Riders who rode into the segregated South of the 1960s to test new civil rights rulings.

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