Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Newsstands were the Wi-Fi of my generation

When I was 6 or 7 years old, a newsstand opened right outside my apartment building. I can’t tell you how happy this made me. The previous closest newsstand was two blocks away. Not very far. But a newsstand right outside my door was something else. I would be able to check for new issues all of my favourite comics at a moment’s notice, and greatly increase the impulse purchase of sticker packets for my Panini albums.

The newsstand almost always came in the form of a small kiosk, with displays of magazines on three sides and a shop front on the fourth featuring all of the high-volume items, as well as the operator, who may or may not also be the owner.

The newsstand was a crucial piece of our cultural infrastructure. Italian city libraries seldom catered for children at the time, so the bulk of our reading material had to be purchased, and most of it came from newsstands. Activity books and very simple comic books, at first, then more complex comics and our first chapter books. This is the material on which I learned to read. Then newspapers, of course, and magazines. But also novels – romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction – which were sold as periodicals. For instance: the reason why thrillers and detective mysteries in Italy are known as gialli (‘yellow books’ or films for that matter) is that for decades their main publishing channel was a fortnightly series of books with yellow covers issued by Mondadori.

No single publication was more central to my early to mid-childhood than Topolino. It was Italian artists who revived the comic book story centred around Disney characters after the war, and the country is a major supplier of Disney stories to this day. The weekly magazine had a bit of everything: stories, yes, but also trivia, puzzles, and various kinds of informative columns of the kind one might find in a magazine for grown-ups.

The comic book offering in our new-stands was hardly confined to young readers (Tex, Diabolik and – later – Martin Mystère are notable examples), but equally the newsstand was the place for young adults and above to keep up with the latest offerings in genre fiction. I read every giallo from the age of 10 or thereabouts, but my favourite was Urania, the science-fiction series also published by Mondadori. It introduced me to writers who rate among my favourites to this day. For instance: I was about to go on holidays, in the summer of 1980, when I first encountered Douglas Adams.

Ah, yes, the holidays. The thing about the holidays was, it might be hard to find a newsstand. At the campsites where we typically stayed, the shop might stock the odd newspaper, but rarely more than that. So one of the first orders of business was to locate the newsstand in the nearest town or village – which, outside of the main cities, might be an actual shop, which often also sold stationery. You might find one near the main church. Alternatively, there would always be one by the train station, if the town happened to have one. You would instinctively know where to look, anyway.

This act of finding was crucial because newsstands were the Wi-Fi of my generation. They didn’t just connect us with the news – a transistor radio could do that. Much more importantly, like the web, they were hyper-saturated with all kinds of information packaged as entertainment. Without newsstands, we would have to spend a lot more time talking to one another. (It was hell. You weren’t there, man.)

While I’m drawing a comparison with the world wide web, I really need to mention the porn. There was so much porn. The habits of the operators varied, but I would estimate that at least half of all kiosk-shaped newsstands had one of their ‘blind’ sides devoted to displaying hardcore pornography. It was conveniently placed at child-height, and because it was a blind side no-one would see you standing there, and the covers were often little self-contained pornos. It’s quite amazing, in hindsight, the stuff we were carelessly exposed to.

Looking through the photographic archive of my trips back home, I see that the newsstand outside my apartment building was put on sale some time in 2010.

It seems that nobody was willing to purchase it, because now it’s gone.

Growing up, I always thought the children of newsstand owners or operators were the luckiest on earth, having free access to all of that printed bounty. Evidently, I thought they could just help themselves to the entire stock for free, including the sticker packets for the Panini albums. But how marvellous it would be to operate such a marvellous store! It was only later that I realised how hard the job actually was – having to get up before dawn to collect the newspaper deliveries, being trapped in that kiosk all day without a bathroom and with few breaks, in all kinds of weather.

The newsstand as an institution still exists in Italy, but many things have changed. Most obviously, we have actual wi-fi now, which has dispensed with the need for a great deal of low-value publications. Topolino still exists. So does La settimana enigmistica. So do I gialli Mondadori and Urania, although they are published half as often now. Supermarkets are cutting in on the business of the operators, and profit margins must be lower anyway, which explains why newsstands such as our local are closing. As always, I say this without nostalgia: but merely to remember that such a thing existed, and was an intimate part of the fabric of our everyday lives. So much so that you might forget it was there.