After selling newspapers and magazines from around the world on a corner of Pike Place Market for 40 years, First and Pike News is making some news of its own.
Owner Lee Lauckhart has decided to close the landmark newsstand on Dec. 31. The stand was built of words, but the numbers just don’t add up, he says. Declining newspaper and magazine readership means declining sales. It’s that simple.
“It looks like an unbelievable success story,” Lauckhart, 78, said Friday morning. “But the majority of our customers look like me. They’re old. And people under 30 don’t read printed material. They read it on screens. It’s been a digital onslaught.”
Lauckhart used to carry 180 different newspapers, but has let that number drop to 55. He once carried 2,000 magazines, but has cut that by about 300.
“It finally came to a point where I would have to start funding it,” Lauckhart said in his office above the stand, while the chorus of the Pike Place Fish Market mongers echoed up the stairs. “This has been coming on for a long time. The business has been saved by gum.”
The stand sells a lot of Hubba Bubba bubble gum for $2 a pack, which inevitably ends up squished on the Gum Wall, down the ramp and around the corner. It takes about that long to chew it.
The stand also sells postcards — four for $1 — and gives a lot of directions. Not a lot of money to be made in either.
Still, there is much to draw customers in. The glossy American titles are stacked in front, with Cate Blanchett and Adam Driver looking hither and yon. On the other side of the wall, well, nearly every interest is covered: Marie Claire. Der Spiegel. Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Skin Art. American Bee Journal. Witches and Pagans. There are titles in French and Italian, Spanish and Russian.
For the past 13 years, Lauckhart has not collected a salary. He has been living on his Social Security while still paying his employees $15 an hour long before it became law. He also provides health benefits, even if the employee only worked one shift a week.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Lauckhart said. “If you paid them what they’re worth and let them go home by 5 p.m., well, they’re happy.”
There is no cash register. Clerks keep cash in their aprons (“Old school,” Lauckhart said, wagging the front of his apron) so they can wander around. In the tiny kiosk that serves as a counter, there is a credit-card reader, rubber bands and scissors.
“Lee and his team have always been the inviting beacon that welcomes us all to the Pike Place Market,” said Mary Bacarella, executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority. “As Seattle has morphed over the years, it’s become clear how lucky we have all been, having him in the Market for these past 40 years.”
When he opened in 1979, “There wasn’t much of a plan,” Lauckhart said.
A Seattle native who studied environmental health at the University of Washington, Lauckhart spent three months in New York City with his then-wife and her family, selling newspapers from a stand owned by his father-in-law. He loved it. The people; being part of the news of the day.
After the couple divorced, Lauckhart moved back to Seattle with his young daughter, Aana. He started working in the market as a “crafty,” making jewelry out of horseshoe nails. And he befriended Seby Nahmias, who owned the newspaper-vending rights for the corner of First and Pike. (They date back to 1914, when they sold for $300. Lauckhart still has the original documents in his office).
Lauckhart suggested they partner up and open a newsstand with more than just the local newspapers. They were joined by Steve Dunnington.
“We wanted everything possible that we could get because there weren’t any phones in your pocket,” Lauckhart said.
Not long after they opened, 25 papers from across the country were being sent from numerous cities by air to San Francisco, where a distributor sorted them in the airport and sent them off to Seattle on Flying Tiger, a cargo airline.
Six months later, Mount St. Helens blew. Newspapers from around the region printed extra editions, which landed in huge piles in front of the newsstand and were snatched right up.
“It gave us a real boost,” Lauckhart said. “We had stacks all around us. I felt a little bad about it, so we gave a bit of the profits to the Red Cross.”
Back then, Pike Place Market was closed on Sunday — the biggest day for newspapers, Lauckhart realized. So, in the spring of 1980, First and Pike News became the first Market business to open on Sunday. Other businesses followed.
Nahmias died in 1987, and Lauckhart still keeps his name on his locker in the office.
His daughter Aana, now 46, grew up with the newsstand. She lived with her father in a studio apartment above the Market, where they converted the closet into a room for her. “I slept on a shelf in the closet and he slept in the living room,” she said.
Every morning, she sat on a stool at the stand, waiting for the school bus that would take her up the hill to T.T. Minor Elementary.
After school, she’d be right back there, learning what she called “the newsboy shuffle” to hawk newspapers: “Get your Times and your P.I.,” she recited. “If you can’t read, you can look at the pictures.”
Aana believes her father has been keeping the newsstand alive — and taking the financial hit — as a matter of principle.
“It’s because of his deep belief in the free press,” she said, “and how democratizing a newsstand can be.”
He also kept it going for his employees, many of whom have stayed with him for more than 20 years. He’s had just 33 employees over the decades; now he’s down to three.
“Artists, musicians and potters,” Aana said. “The heartbeat of Seattle.”
Lauckhart pays time-and-a-half on days he chose himself: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Election Day. But also on National Civility Day and on his best friend’s birthday.
George Cottrell, 56, who has been working at the stand for just over 20 years, showed off a marbled notebook with sightings, quotes and other notes kept by employees. Musician and actress Carrie Brownstein’s mother showed up, looking for the issue of Mental Floss with her daughter on the cover.
“One woman who lives two or three doors down, buys The Seattle Times every day, and never says a word,” Cottrell said.
In his office, Lauckhart keeps a list of celebrities who have stopped at the stand, and the date. In October 2004, Martha Stewart came by; in July 1992, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid stopped with a child in a stroller to buy the Sunday New York Times; the queen of England’s gofer bought the Los Angeles Sunday Times and The New York Times; and in January 2001, Billy Joel spent $50 on “motorcycle mags.”
Now that the closing is imminent, Lauckhart expects a little boost in business, “and we’ll be happy with that.”
“If somebody was to buy it from me, they’d have to buy all the inventory and throw in good money,” Lauckhart said about the newsstand. “But I know it’s not going to work for them. And before too long, they’ll be crying the blues.”
By closing it now, he said, the space will belong to the Market and can be re-imagined.
Lauckhart will send back whatever inventory is left for credit, cancel his decadeslong orders and let the subscriptions expire. He’ll spend the month of January in his office, finishing things up, then head home, where he’s got “a lot of things to do.”
Aana is lobbying for a father-daughter road trip. “Standing on the corner of First and Pike is not an easy hustle,” she said. “He could use a nap.”
“It was the news,” Lauckhart said. “We were what’s happening. It’s not like running a fruit stand, selling apples and oranges. Every day, every week it’s different. You’re in Seattle and the world.”