Friday, December 19, 2008

I have a Long and Personal History with the Newspaper

The Newspaper and I
by Charlie Leck

My old man sold newspapers. I never saw the numbers laid out before me, but it was a big part of his livelihood. Of course, we didn’t have Excel spreadsheets back in those days either.

Selling the Sunday morning newspapers was quite a process that began sometime on Saturday afternoon. I was deeply involved in that process from early on in childhood. It was something I could count on every single weekend. Other activities, like the Saturday matinee movie at the Borough Hall or the high school football game, had to be fitted around the preparation of the Sunday newspapers.

I’m talking about a lot of newspapers. Sixty years ago, the newspaper was a really big deal. To understand, you need to imagine a world without CNN, MSNBC and FOX News. As a matter of fact, for that period at the beginning of my history with the Sunday newspapers, you need to imagine a world without TV. Really!

We sold a lot of different newspapers on Sunday morning – the New York Daily News, the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Daily Mirror, the New York Times and the Newark Star Ledger. Mountainous piles of each were waiting for our customers on Sunday morning, when we opened the doors at 8:00 A.M..

I’ve tried my best to describe my old man’s store in the past. It’s not an easy thing to do. A friend of mine, in an email to another friend, did his best in trying to describe it.
“The Leck general store [was] on the square with the Chester House Hotel and Post Office. The store was a kind of Norman Rockwell building with a broad wood porch and one big room with a long counter on one side and an ice cream fountain on another. The front and the other side were windows so you could see the traffic, if it ever came by. Then there were tables and chairs for the fountain customers and a big stove in winter. Charlie’s mother and father served customers from behind the long counter, taking down the cans from the tall shelves against the wall as they asked for them. It was our favorite place for ice cream and candy if we could get some. In fact, the only place! There were always kids you knew there when you went in or hung out on the porch….” [John Hopper]
That’s not a bad description, but the old place looked very different on a Sunday morning because the newspapers were stacked in tall piles in front of that long counter. As a small boy I wondered at how all those newspapers could possibly be sold. Even more, I wondered at how anyone could possibly read any newspaper as thick as the New York Times; yet, some customers would come in and purchase three different papers for their Sunday reading.

The pre-printed sections of all the papers began arriving on Saturday afternoon. Big bundles of the advertising sections, and the magazine sections, and ‘the comics’ were all dropped off by big trucks that pulled up to the long porch in front of the store. We had to haul the big bundles inside and tuck them out of sight.

On Saturday evening, when business slowed to a trickle, we began pulling out the big bundles of the advanced sections of each of the papers. Piles were created on all the dining tables around the store with each table representing a different paper. My old man was always in charge of the NY Times table. The advance sections were all slid together so that there would be only one compiled section to fold into the “hot” news sections that would arrive in the early morning. These were left sitting on the table or on the chairs next to each of the tables.

Early on Sunday morning, long before the rising of the sun, from my bedroom above the store, I could hear the big, heavy bundles of the newspapers landing on the porch down below. The whole building seemed to shake as each bundle crash on the old, wooden landing area. One truck would arrive with some of the papers and another would arrive with the others.

“All hands on deck!”

My father would pop in and alert my brothers and sister. In those early years, before my sister and brothers moved away, there was always plenty of help. Even in the later years of the store’s history, though my brothers lived in their own homes with their own wives, they would show up faithfully on Sunday morning for the massive assembly line.

Each of us had our assigned duties. In the early years, when I was but a little tike, my main job was taking finished papers in small piles and stacking them in front of the counter as high as I was able. When they reached the height of my eyes, one of my brothers would take over my task.

As I grew older and taller, I migrated into the assembly line and had my own table and my own papers to assemble. Three, four or five sections, depending on the newspaper, had to be assembled and then Saturday’s advance section needed to be folded into each of Sunday’s packet to make a final Sunday newspaper.

It all had to be completed by eight o’clock when there would be a dozen or more people standing out on the porch waiting for my old man to unlock the door and allow them in. Often, someone who thought he was a special friend would signal that he would like early entrance. Some people even tapped on the glass windows from the porch. My father pretended not to see or hear a thing and instructed us to do the same. To interrupt the assembly process would mean we wouldn’t be ready for the opening at eight o’clock.

The dining tables were nearly black with printer’s ink when the last paper was assembled. My mother was on the job by this time and she went from table to table, scrubbing each of them and wiping down their chairs as well.

I watched in amazed wonder when the doors were finally opened. People strode in rapidly and grabbed their favorite newspaper, or even a couple of them, and then asked for a quart of milk, bacon and a dozen eggs to take along home. Some fellows took their paper to a table and spread out, telling my mother they’d like a hot cup of coffee and, perhaps, an English muffin with marmalade. All the tables would be taken within 10 minutes and, sometimes, one old-timer would join another local at his table.

The big piles of newspapers began to diminish. For some of the papers there were reserves that had been stacked in the store room in the back of the store and my job was to refresh the piles when they began to get near the bottom.

“Come on! Make it snappy,” my old man would call out to me.

There were other commands as well.

“Fetch me a pound of Maxwell House!”

“Bring a pint of heavy cream!”

“Get me down a box of Corn Flakes!”

“Gotta have four bottles of cold Coke!”

Things seemed to fly off the shelves, out of the big refrigerator box and from the soda cooler.

Every customer seemed to know my old man personally. They’d call him Hank, or Hennie or Henry, depending on how personally they knew him.

I remember making judgments about the sophistication of our townspeople depending on which newspapers they purchased. Of course, those who picked up the NY Times were the learned, reading folks in town. The guy who picked up the Daily Mirror was tagged as a less complex person.

All kinds of items moved off the shelves on a Sunday morning. No one seemed to purchase just the paper. Work gloves sold like crazy during the gardening months. Magazines could be chosen from a long, low counter in the front of the store, and there were dozens and dozens from which to choose – all the way from Popular Mechanics to Look Magazine. Candy bars, in the display cases right above the stacks of newspapers, sold swiftly too. So did chewing gum and packs of Chesterfields and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Things would calm down after an hour or so, but then the pre-church and after-church rushes would begin. By one o’clock, nearly all the papers were gone. We’d shut the store down for an hour and my old man would hang out a sign, telling folks we were having our Sunday dinner and would open again at two.

My mom would have something special for us all to eat. The dining room table, pulled out into the middle of our living room, would have her best china all set out on it. We’d enjoy Yankee Pot Roast, or leg of lamb, or Virginia Baked Ham. Sundays were never fish days. That was Friday.

The old man would finish dinner and have time for a half-hour nap before he had to open up again. He’d lie down on the sofa that paralleled the dining room table and drift off, snoring loudly. Most times we’d try to let him sleep and my brothers and I, or Blanche, the neighbor lady who worked for us on Sunday afternoons, would open the place up.

My mother might offer specials to luncheonette customers, depending on what was left over from our Sunday dinner. A nice Virginia baked ham sandwich on a home-made dinner roll was always popular. So, was a hot, Yankee pot roast sandwich smothered in thick gravy, with mashed potatoes on the side. Top it off with a chocolate milk shake and our customers would have a spectacular Sunday afternoon meal with no reason to worry about dinner on that night.

The last few, scattered newspapers would be gone by evening. If there were any left, they’d be bundled and marked for return to the truckers on the following Saturday. We’d never have anything more than a small bundle to put out for return.

I’ve known the feel and smell of printer’s ink for nearly all my life. When I’ve worked my way through the paper on a Sunday morning, I look down at the blackness on my fingers and I’m reminded of those days in that little town and in that general store where we mixed assembling the newspapers with jerking behind the soda fountain.

Late in the summer of 1959, I left New Jersey and ventured west. Mother had left for the stars. My brothers and sister had their own homes. It was difficult to leave Pop alone, but I had some of my own hillocks to climb and I needed to sit with someone sweet beneath the stars, examining them. I came home in the summer of 1960 and worked a few jobs to earn tuition money for college. I also helped out in the store and assembled Sunday papers for the last time. That autumn, I left for good and never again put together a newspaper or waited on another customer in Leck’s Confectionary.

The old store was played out. The old man’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. I knew that. He wouldn’t hang on much longer.

TV had arrived. Walter Cronkite talked the news nearly every evening of the week. Newspapers consolidated and changed their emphasis.

It would take another 50 years, but the newspaper industry had begun its slow decline toward extinction. As certain as death is, I still refuse to believe in it!

I close my eyes and see those towering stacks of newspapers, standing taller than I, lined up in front of the candy counter.

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