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Newsstands flourished before pulp friction

A proprietor remembers when the Sunday New York Times sold for 12 cents, a time when the Internet was a harebrained notion.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 18, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- The city's first newsstand was just a Hole in the Wall.

"The stand was well named in 1910, being a narrow opening between stores," journalist Dick Bothwell said. "The stock had to be wheeled out on racks to the sidewalk so the customers could get to it."

Newsstands, many of them claustrophobic cubbyholes brimming with the scent of tobacco, paper and ink, have peppered Pinellas County since they premiered nine decades ago. Today, newsstands struggle in the information age.

"There used to be more than twice as many newsstands here 10 years ago," said Elliott Wood. His Indian Rocks Newsstand is one of five listed in the phone book. "It's gotten to be a hard business."

In 1909, Frank C. West left his job with the Philadelphia Ledger's circulation department to farm in Pinellas Park. Severe flooding in 1910 sent him to St. Petersburg, where he started the city's first newsstand at 271 Central Ave.

The Hole in the Wall was between Edston Lewis' grocery and Arthur Johnson's clothing store. Merchandise was displayed on wheeled racks on the sidewalk.

"If I did that today, it would be an outside library," said Mike Thomas, 34, who owned seven newsstands in Bristol, England, before purchasing Wolf's Newsstand in Pinellas Park with his wife in 2000. "Half my stock would be stolen."

In 1912, Frank West's brother George joined the enterprise. George was a former insurance agent who had endured typhoid and pneumonia. "He heard so much about how people got well here, he came," said Tom West, George West's son.

Frank West fished for bass in local freshwater ponds with artificial lures he helped design. The canvas boat he built often covered the top of his car.

Frank displayed a rattlesnake hide 8 feet 7 inches long at the Hole in the Wall. Rumor had it the snake was killed locally; pioneer Jay Starkey couldn't believe it.

"I've killed a lot of rattlesnakes," Starkey said. "And I remember a 6-foot-6 hide. I've read about larger ones, but a 6-foot one is an awful big one. I guess a man could have put a weight on the end of a drying skin" to stretch the hide.

In 1916, Mayor Al Lang ordered all carts and newsstands removed from city sidewalks. Frank and George West renamed their operation the Brunswick and moved to 257-259 Central Ave. By 1920, the city had five newsstands.

Tom West purchased the Brunswick in 1921 with Percy D. Mulhollem (also spelled Mulhollam and Mulhollen in city directories). Frank West became a rug salesman and real estate agent; George became a salesman and a collector for the St. Petersburg Hardware Co.

The 1921 hurricane devastated the area surrounding the Mulhollem and West Newsstand. "We had opened up for business that morning," Tom West said. "I watched the wind take the tin roof off the Manhattan Market and slam it against the Central National Bank."

During the economic boom, the newsstand flourished. "We used to sell the New York (Sunday) Times for 12 cents back in the early 20s," Tom West noted. "Daily papers cost 6 cents. We even had them from places like Peoria, Ill. (We had) more than 50 papers."

In 1927, Tom West left the enterprise to establish a Miami newspaper and magazine distributorship. Mulhollem maintained newsstands here into the 1940s, including one at the Soreno Hotel.

Scottie's News & Smoke Shop was established in the late 1940s on St. Pete Beach. "They were across the street from where we are now," said Rosanne Hager, who today owns Scottie's with her husband. "Very much the same kind of Hole in the Wall operation.

"It was a much simpler operation then," added Hager, 48, from inside the 1,400-square-foot business. "A lot more out-of-town newspapers then, because they were cheaper and could be returned."

Elliott Wood, 44, said, "It's a lot more complicated. I carry a lot less newspapers (12 to 15 titles). Magazine sales and profit margins have dropped." He said newsstands resembling the Hole in the Wall still exist in Europe.

Thomas said supermarkets hurt newsstands in the 1990s by selling magazines. "With the Internet, people can also read newspapers, except for the classifieds," he said at his 1,500-square-foot newsstand that carries 15 newspapers and 1,300 magazine titles.

Reed News (1970s), Central Newsstand (1970s) and Joyce's Newsstand (1980s) have come and gone. The fellowship still remains.

"I feel like a little chamber of commerce," Hager said. "They come for the conversation. There's something about going to a newsstand."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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