The small newsstand on the corner of Third Avenue and Pike Street—right next to Century Square and the old Woolworth's building—doesn't look like much anymore. The windows of the six-foot-by-six-foot shack are painted a drab shade of blue. A small rack of obscure papers—Russian World News, the Facts, and, of course, The Stranger—sits near the street, and a sign on one side of the building advertises the once-popular newsstand's biggest seller—pocket-size versions of the Declaration of Independence. "My only profits are when I sell these for five bucks," says Benjamin Gant, 29, the newsstand's owner.
Gant, a Seattle native, hopes to restore the 89-year-old stand and start selling papers again. But that may be easier said than done. Right now, Gant is operating in a legal gray area. He doesn't have an agreement in place to sell any of Seattle's major newspapers—or anything else, for that matter—but even if he did, the city has said his newsstand lacks a street-use permit for its space on Third Avenue. Even worse, the stand's dilapidated exterior has drawn complaints from neighboring businesses and threats of legal action from the city, any one of which could put Seattle's last surviving street newsstand out of business.
"Life preservers are an eyesore, but that doesn't mean we need to get them off the boat," Gant says. "[This newsstand] is a life preserver of democracy."
On a muggy July afternoon, Gant—who has a day job in marketing—sits inside the dark newsstand, which is lined with coffee makers, old newspapers, a microwave, and a small refrigerator; he is fiddling with a cigarette. A man approaches the stand and asks if Gant has a copy of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer. Gant has to turn him away.
The newsstand has a long history. Frank Turco—a local union activist who ran unsuccessfully for city council in the 1940s—opened the newsstand in 1919 and ran it until his death in 1966. Since then, the stand has been passed down from vendor to vendor—most recently to Gant, who says he bought it in 2002 for $3,000.
On February 10, 2006, someone set fire to the newsstand, gutting it. The building wasn't insured and after the fire, Gant wasn't sure he could keep going. But after taking some time off and drawing inspiration from the stand's original owner, Turco, Gant pulled together $500 and rebuilt the "Frank Turco Memorial Newsstand."
In April 2007, not long after Gant got his shop back up and running, he received a notice from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), citing him for, among other things, failing to regularly open the newsstand (city regulations say newsstands must be attended every weekday) and for operating without a news-vendor permit. The city threatened Gant with a $500-a-day fine, and Gant sought an appeal with the city's hearing examiner.
Since then, Gant's business has been in limbo. He doesn't have much to sell—just the Declaration of Independence, plus free papers like Seattle Gay News and The Stranger—and Pike Place Market and the new nearby Kress IGA Supermarket threaten to eat into his business should he get permitted and officially reopen.
Despite the long, uphill battle that Gant has ahead of him if he wants to save the stand, he's not giving up. Although Gant says he's been working with the city to keep the stand running, SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan claims there "hasn't been a rapid movement to resolve this issue." Sheridan says SDOT, which handles permitting for street businesses like Gant's, is waiting for Gant to move forward with the permitting process.
Gant hopes to raise $23,000 to renovate the newsstand, giving it a more modern glass-and-steel look. But he would need to finish any work by November to reopen by the end of the year, before the city begins its holiday-season moratorium on downtown construction. If too much time lapses, the city says it could get a court order to have the stand removed.
For now, Gant says he'll continue to show up to the stand five days a week until his dispute with the city is settled. "I will chain myself to this thing. I told the city that," Gant says. "This is... my life's work."