Sparing a thought for the lowly newspaper vendor

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THE POPULAR image of a newspaper vendor, perhaps seen in old American movies, is of the hawker weaving among rush-hour traffic in a busy city intersection shouting: “Read all about it ! Get the latest news here!”


Mr Edwin Lewis as he plies his trade outside the horse-racing establishment on Camp and Charlotte Streets here in Georgetown (Photo by Norman faria)

As he (very seldom a woman) holds up the latest edition, showing the blaring headline, with one hand while managing to wedge a bundle of papers under the arm, he somehow manages to make change for the passing motorists.

Today, as most Guyanese who visit North American cities will know, that has changed: Today, the vendors usually have their little stands at intersections selling all types of publications, including magazines — even hot coffee and snacks! In some cities like Hollywood, the vendors are banned.

But in some African and Asian countries, vendors still hustle the rush-hour crowds as they snake between the cars.

In Guyanese urban areas, as in Barbados and Trinidad, the tradition is for them to sit at prominent intersection corners. One of them is at Charlotte and Camp streets, outside the betting shop. There you will find Edwin Lewis. He ‘s been at it for nearly twenty years. Most times when I’m in Guyana, I walk into Georgetown early morning to have a cup of tea and read all the major papers. I get them from him.

No matter what weather, he is there. If it’s raining, he’s got his plastic to cover up, while he ducks into the shop. Above the racing commentary from the TV monitors and discussion buzz of the gambling addicts ( some of whom will be throwing away money which should go to helping out with household expenses), Lewis said it is an honest living. It is a time honoured occupation. In keeping with ‘branching out’, he keeps a ‘cooler’ nearby with soft drinks for customers.

Aside from the four dailies — Chronicle, Kaieteur News, Guyana Times and Stabroek News –you can buy the political party papers like the Mirror. The more papers he sells, the more money he makes. But the bulk of his customers are regulars. The bundles left every morning are invariably the same amount.

Lewis, ’70-something’ and from the East Coast, says he hasn’t had any major problems. As with other occupations, he has to deal with some regulars who don’t honour their debts. “You sometimes have to make arrangements (with people to pay on a monthly basis). But some of them don’t want to pay, so you have to refuse them credit,” he said in an interview last December.

Most times, you will find him standing up. This is unlike most of the other city vendors, such as the woman near the Stabroek Market minibus loading area (next to the iguanas and chickens on the sidewalk) from whom I also buy from time to time. Doesn’t he get tired? Lewis replied he hasn’t got time to sit down. He is always busy with customers, and gaffing with friends, though there is a chair on the sidewalk for him to sit for a few moments now and again.

Guyana, as in other countries like the US, has a system whereby vendors travel around on bicycles and other means of transport. They drop off the papers to subscribers’ homes. People may come out to buy them from day to day. When I am in places like Anna Regina (on the Essequibo Coast) or the ferry stellings, you watch out for the fellows selling the papers. Some of them going through neighbourhoods have individual personalities. They add their own interpretations as they shout out the headlines.

The number of vendors in the US, for example, has probably declined compared to the 1940s and 1950s. Newspaper readership is down nationwide. Between April and September last year, it fell by 10.6 per cent. The downward trend will probably continue well into 2010. This is due to market inroads from other sources of news, such as the Internet. Newspaper advertising was down some 7.9 per cent last year.

In Guyana, Internet usage is probably lower in relative terms than in North America, though it is increasing as incomes and the standard-of-living for all Guyanese rise. The newspaper business is apparently still making money. Reading newspapers is still part of Guyana’s media culture. Indeed, a new daily — the Guyana Times — recently came on line. Guyana has a good record, since 1992, of freedom of the press, though some knowledgeable observers say it is too free. More controls and regulations in the interest of the overall society’s good are long overdue, they maintain.

Vendors are still needed. They are on the front lines in getting the papers into the public’s hands. Spare a thought for them. They do their part in the dissemination of information; they help spread the word. Some of it is not really news; it is sensationalism, based on speculation and hearsay. It panders to people’s baser instincts. It is designed to maximise newspaper sales.

There is, nevertheless, a lot of news about the ongoing progress and development in Guyana. People will read between the lines and know the score. And hardworking individuals like Edwin Lewis are doing their part.

As I walk away from Mr. Lewis one morning last December, I half expected him to be calling out: “Read all about it !” to motorists on busy Camp street. Just like the vendor at Spadina and Bloor in downtown Toronto (Canada) from whom I bought the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail when I lived there in the 1970s. But he didn’t need to.
(Norman Faria (nfaria@caribsurf.com) is Guyana’s Honorary Consul in Barbados)