Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

The Washington Post, The Pentagon Papers & Chicago’s Bob’s Newsstand…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 1:42 pm on Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Washington Post, The Pentagon Papers, & Chicago’s Bob’s Newsstand

July 29, 2020 © by Robert M. Katzman

History matters. But this history has been unwritten, until now.

Forty-nine years ago in 1971, The Washington Post chose to publish The Pentagon Papers revealing the hidden political truth about the Vietnam War and its long-before assumed failure by successive administrations, after a lower court’s injunction against the internationally known and respected New York Times discouraged them from going beyond their first dramatic and exclusive front page story. The Post, a far smaller local newspaper barely known beyond the DC area and with much less in resources, took a big risk in deciding to continue publishing that story. That risk might have caused its extinction as a newspaper.

Thirty-five years ago today, on July 29, 1985, a certain enterprise called Bob’s Newsstand in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago–which was linked to The Washington Post in 1971 under unusual circumstances, and which also took considerable risks–closed its doors to the public 23 days short of its 20thanniversary, having been founded August 21, 1965. 

This story is about what happened in the years following the brief connection between The Washington Post newspaper on the East Coast and Bob’s Newsstand on the South Side of Chicago, and the consequences of calculated nerve.

Bob’s Newsstand began as a four-foot by four-foot wooden shack opened by two teenagers the summer before they both became sophomores in their high schools. It was one of a thousand such places all over Chicago where a car could pull up, roll down their window, ask for a newspaper, have it handed to them, pay the newspaper guy, usually a senior citizen, and then the car drove away. The transaction took less than a minute. But all the newsstands did that and there was nothing to distinguish one from another, and therefore no way to grow as a business.

Adding the New York Times to the mix of newspapers offered in 1966, and then gradually expanding the wooden shack from 4 x 4 ft, to 6 x 4 feet, to 8 x 6 feet, to 16 x 12 feet, and filling that wooden space with 3,000 different periodicals from all over the world, also began attracting customers from far beyond the University of Chicago to people visiting from other states. There was no advertising, no public relations company involved, just steady positive word-of-mouth. But still, the original model of how to sell a newspaper to a car remained constant. One transaction at a time. Period. 

However, when the ease of purchasing the New York Times curbside from Bob’s Newsstand on weekends began attracting more people in cars than could be efficiently waited on, especially the massive Sunday edition, then five pounds of newsprint. Cars piled up blocking the street, horns constantly honked, the local cops became irritated and consequently a new system of selling newspapers at a newsstand was inaugurated. The Times was difficult to obtain, only slightly distributed in the Downtown area and not much beyond that at all. Therefore, it was a game-changing attraction.

Bob was still a teenager, about 17, when this new plan took place, and had a crew of mostly 12-year-old employees who worked part-time after school and on weekends. 

For Bob, it was his first opportunity to become a boss beginning in 1966. For the boys, it was their first job. Each new employee was vetted by an experienced existing one as to their friend’s honesty, dependability and their ability to correctly make change for a dollar. This way of growing the young crew working at the newsstand with their interconnecting relationships, and being trusted by their boss created solidarity and subsequently, efficiency.

To avoid antagonizing his steady customers, new customers and importantly, the local police who routinely received free newspapers to encourage their good will, Bob developed a system of placing five young employees approximately one car length apart from the corner, each boy wearing a change belt filled with coins, each having a tall stack of the newspapers most in demand: The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Times. As a car pulled around the corner, each boy would wave it down to the farthest open sales spot. It took a short time for the boys to overcome their timidity in ordering adults in cars what they had to do at Bob’s Newsstand if they wanted to buy a newspaper.

A sixth boy would monitor the level of their piles of newspapers and speedily resupply them from the newsstand’s inventory of a thousand newspapers, as necessary. Bob watched the entire operation, collected the paper money periodically, resupplied coins for change as needed, and watched a separate crew of boys assembling the weekend papers with each newspaper needing to be stuffed with a supplement of advertising and the comic section. 

But the New York Times had four separate sections to be inserted, none of which were comic pages. Part of their mystique.

With this new selling system–unique in Chicago–in place, tweaked as necessary to correct any problems in swiftness, Bob’s Newsstand’s sales grew rapidly both as a curiosity-in-motion to watch and a fast way for a busy impatient man or woman to buy multiple newspapers without needing to park or leave their cars. This led to selling more and more Sunday newspapers until The New York Times alone reached one thousand one hundred copies, plus the other two Chicago newspapers selling about two thousand stuffed copies each, or four thousand Sun-Times and Chicago Tribunes.

This meant, in terms of labor and sales, that the Chicago newspapers alone were composed of 8,000 parts needing to be assembled prior to selling them, and the New York Times with its four supplements—financial section, week-in-review section, sports section and the much larger entertainment section containing the NYT Magazine and book review magazine—represented 5,500 separate parts to be correctly assembled prior to selling them. That totaled 13,500 parts and required five boys working for hours to accomplish. I say “boys” routinely here, but gender was never an issue, or race for that matter and about one third of the employees working at Bob’s were girls. Sundays eventually required eighteen employees.

The kids were Caucasian, Eastern European, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Jewish and Black. This diversity, tolerance, expressed equality and the fact that all of them were local children also drew

attention to the ramshackle wooden shack on a corner in Hyde Park as a remarkable beacon of fairness and decency not found so commonly elsewhere. And growing publicity followed that public awareness.

If a kid had to go to the bathroom, another kid took his place until he returned. If it began to rain, plastic tarps were quickly distributed to cover each station’s inventory of fat newspapers. Each boy was expected to wear appropriate clothing for the weather, be it wet, cold, blazing hot or extremely windy which Chicago was famous for.

The thousands of dollar bills were a major problem to deal with, leading to whenever a twenty dollar bill was tendered for a one dollar sale, nineteen singles was the change given. All of he employees cashed their checks on Sundays, and likewise all were paid in one dollar bills. No one complained, because Bob’s paid fairly and those single bills could be significant to a twelve-year-old boy or girl.

The surrounding neighborhood stores were individually informed that if they needed one dollar bills on a Sunday, Bob’s newsstand was ready for them, and delighted to help. This then led to more local good will from small stores, when all the banks were closed on Sundays. While all this effort to redistribute paper dollars may seem bizarre, a person would understand the problem more clearly if they were faced with ten thousand of them. In twenty years there was never a robbery. 

When the story about the “Pentagon Papers” was first published on June 13, 1971, Bob was not especially aware of it, because on that day when he was twenty-one, he married a local girl.

However, since he read the New York Times every day (which represented a separate education for him when he was in high school) and he became conscious that something major was brewing in the newspaper business a thousand miles away, and that his unusually well-educated and worldly customers from many countries and The University of Chicago might be pleased to be able to conveniently obtain The Sunday Washington Post at Bob’s Newsstand, even though it was not nationally distributed.

After calling the Post, and eventually finding the right person who would listen to him, Bob subscribed to what eventually became two hundred Sunday Posts which arrived at the Greyhound Bus Station in Downtown Chicago and where he had to drive every Sunday night from Hyde Park to get them after Bob’s Newsstand had closed. Unlike common Chicago newspapers’ practice, none of the Posts were returnable. Any unsold copies became a loss and subsequently trash. 

The price chosen by Bob to sell the Posts to the public during the week was low enough to encourage his customers to buy them, but high enough to cover his risk of unsold copies and the 16-mile round trip to get them on Sunday nights. This relationship with the Post lasted for two years at which time Bob’s Newsstand was carrying newspapers from twenty large American Cities. All were mailed to him, and none were returnable. When the interest in the Pentagon Papers waned, Bob cancelled all his subscriptions because it was no longer worth his time to drive Downtown to get them. 

But after the burst of new publicity, Bob’s initial effort to carry what was for a while the most sensational and publicized newspaper in America, resulted in a moment one Sunday when a tall stranger in a very nice suit entered Bob’s Newsstand with his pretty and equally well-dressed wife. 

When Bob asked them if he could help them, the man smiled and in a deep southern accent suggested that Bob look at something in case he was unaware of it. He pulled out a United Airlines InFlight Magazine and showed Bob where it said: “While In Chicago, be certain to visit Bob’s Newsstand near the University of Chicago, one of the most unique of its kind of business in the United States.”

This moment represented the peak period of Bob’s Newsstand’s existence; when after a small newspaper on the East Coast risked all to carry what they felt the public deserved to know, and which the Supreme Court subsequently affirmed was their right to represent the public interest and not the government’s. Bob too, then decided to take a chance to make his business more attractive and more valuable to the surrounding community, even though to fail would have cost him hundreds of dollars (equal to thousands of dollars in today’s money) and endless time to go fetch them every week. 

No, the risks weren’t comparable, of course. But the courage of the Post made a major impact on him both as a person and as an enterprise. The two companies were connected for those two years leading to enough publicity to fuel Bob’s future for another fifteen years, even though newsstands all over Chicago and America began closing by the thousands as times changed and newsstands selling newspapers on corners to cars were becoming a thing of the past. 

Bob’s Newsstand opened fifty-five years ago this August and if anything, is a footnote in Chicago’s urban history today. Bob, now 70, lives in Wisconsin. He reads The Economist now instead of The New York Times.

Jeff Bazos, owner of Amazon, bought the financially faultering Washington Post for $200 million dollars from the original founding family in 2013. It continues to publish to this day.

Sometimes taking a big chance leads to unexpected consequences and in the case of Bob’s Newsstand, his business was among the few to continue to operate until July 29, 1985. A twenty-year run.


**************************************************************** 

Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him! Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

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Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman Don’t Go Quietly Press PO Box 44287 Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

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Shipping by air to most of Europe, due to the weight of my books is $99.00

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My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.  My hour-long story reading at WGTD 91.1 NPR Kenosha, Wis is now a podcast. The interview and story can be heard here:

Speaking of Our Words – June 30th, 2017 With special guest star and featured writer Bob Katzman. Bob reads his memoir, “Audrey, Pink Bunny Slippers, Her Cat and the God’s Eye” and talks about his w…   Your comments are welcome, below, and please tell others I can be found here as a writer. I can also be hired as a speaker for organizations, etc, both here and in Europe. Seeking an agent. robertmkatzman@gmail.com Poet & Storyteller for hire for organizations, schools or private events   www.DifferentSlants.com to view recent and older examples of my work

1 Comment »

Comment by Brad Dechter

July 28, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

Great story Bob! Supports the old adage. “No risk, no reward”. As an entrepreneur, I identify.
Well done!

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