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Last stand for newsstands: Read all about it

Ink-stained holdovers such as Sheltams at the Farmers Market still cater to a loyal if shrinking coterie of tradition-bound customers.

October 28, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

It's the month that Conde Nast folded Gourmet and a couple of other big-name magazines, the week that newspapers reported tanking circulation, again, and the day that hundreds of micro-bloggers gathered in Los Angeles to celebrate a world of tiny messages on glowing screens.

So here I am at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, in the midst of a bunch of folks who didn't seem to get the message: Ink on paper is dead.

There's actor Mario Roccuzzo, camping with a newspaper at his usual spot in front of the lottery screen. Eduardo Cervantes hurries in to grab the L.A. Times and La Opinion, looking forward to perusing the news on a break from his deli job. Makeup artist Jacki Shepard stands, mesmerized, in front of a thicket of plush fashion magazines. Yes, she said, Vogue Italia is worth the $22 price tag.

Sheltams Farmers Market Newsstand is one of the social nerve centers within the 75-year-old Fairfax Avenue market, a place where some regulars have been coming for decades -- to see their friends, to share a little conversation or a political argument and, yes, to buy a newspaper or magazine.

In a time when other venerable newsstands -- such as Universal News in Hollywood and Bungalow News in Pasadena -- have been driven out of business, the Farmers Market location is staying alive as it embraces the old and tries to adjust to the new.

You can still while away an afternoon thumbing through the rows of magazines, with no one hurrying you along. You can still commiserate with friends over your Lotto winnings. Or you can buy a fancy cigar and order up a reprint of an overseas paper from the computer humming in a back room.

As of June, owner Paul Sobel became the first retail outlet in Los Angeles to offer NewspaperDirect, an online service that provides access to 1,133 titles in 40 languages. The Farmers Market Newsstand will print a copy of any of them, while you wait, for $5 weekdays, $7 on Sundays.

"We still are a vital purveyor of newspapers and magazines. We're still relevant," Sobel said. "But we need to find new ways to maintain that equilibrium. That's why we've started the downloading of printed papers."

Sobel said he had to find a way to fill the void, because prohibitive shipping costs meant he could no longer obtain many foreign and even U.S. papers.

Based on the few hours I spent hanging around Sheltams (named after Sobel's sisters, Shelley and Tamara), the on-demand papers have a long way to go to become as popular as the Mega Millions lottery.

But Sobel said he realized, after 34 years at the Farmers Market, that he had to "find a way to bridge the technological divide and provide a service customers want."

Myriad pressures make it more difficult than ever for a newsstand to succeed. Wholesale publication prices keep going up, while the public's disposable income seems to keep going down. Chain bookstores can undercut independents on price.

Sobel once had stands in six L.A.-area locations, including a second Farmers Market outlet, which he closed in April.

Many younger readers, in particular, seem content with the news they can read on their cellphones. At the 140 Characters Conference in Hollywood on Tuesday, micro-bloggers discussed how they can sweep the world with 140-character Twitter messages.

That all seemed a world apart from the old newsstand and regulars like Roccuzzo, the actor, who has been a mainstay here since his old haunt, Schwab's in Hollywood, closed in 1983.

"I call this my office," he said. "I'm here twice a day, almost every day."

Roccuzzo, who played hundreds of character roles over half a century in the business, said he is "not a computer guy. . . . This is our world and we love it."

The world is a shopworn corner of the Farmers Market, just off the parking lot and adjacent to a produce stand, with newspapers and magazines crammed alongside paperback bestsellers, graphic novels and a small tobacco humidor.

The bulk of the customers seem to come for lottery tickets, so many that the tiny outlet was the California Lottery's retailer of the year in 2008. The regulars still buzzed this week over the $566,000 jackpot pulled down this month by an actor who lives at the nearby Park La Brea complex.

But another crowd of die-hards come here to browse the shelves, which carry everything from Bow Hunter to Auto Trader and the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Monica Hayward of Santa Barbara drops in regularly when her husband is in town on business. She said a computer screen or printout will never replace the glossy photographs and stories of the Spanish-language magazine Hola! she was taking home.

Shepard said her visits to the newsstand are about exploration -- finding new titles or fashion looks she hadn't discovered before.

"It's getting out and being in the world and seeing things and other people," said Shepard, eyes covered in bubble shades, her hair a sharp red wedge. "It drives me crazy no one wants to do that anymore."

Esther Vinokur, 66, enjoys the friendly ribbing she takes from Sobel. "Paul asks me, 'If you ever win [the lottery], what will you have to complain about?' " laughs Vinokur, who came to the Fairfax district when she was a teenager. "It's very haimish here, it's homey."

The newsstand crowd trends toward middle or retirement age. But more than a few younger readers said they too can't abide a world that's all about computers and cellphones.

"I read the paper all the time and I don't have an iPhone. My friends call me caveman," said Tom Ptasinski, 24. "On the Internet there is just so much information. Click here. Pop up there. Stuff's jumping in front of you all the time."

Ptasinski, who types transcripts for the "Dr. Phil" show, said he gets enough computer time at work.

"With my paper, I can take it with me. I can read it when I want. I can enjoy it when I want," he said. "Maybe I am just old-fashioned."


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