These past few weeks have been tinged with sadness and some melancholy for me, as two close friends on the streets of Shanghai quietly shuttered their doors forever. The pair both came from the family of traditional media, whose slow death is taking a quieter toll on the hundreds of newsstands that have become a fixture on Shanghai’s streets over the last two decades.
The creeping demise of these newsstands has been happening for the last two or three years now, but the closure of two familiar stops in my daily routine so close together made it feel like the trend is accelerating. I pass around a dozen such newsstands every day in my old neighborhood in Hongkou District, and probably about half of those are now permanently shuttered.
The reality is that change occurs all the time, and even these trademark newsstands are a relatively recent arrival to the streets of Shanghai. When I first arrived in China in the 1980s, such newsstands were non-existent, since newspapers and magazines were still a relative luxury for people whose monthly salaries totaled just 100 yuan (about US$33 at that time) or less. So perhaps these modern fixtures had a brief day in the sun.
As a former reporter, I’m a regular reader of newspapers and magazines and frequent patron of the many newsstands in my neighborhood. Most of those are staffed by older people, often retirees, who use them to supplement their modest pensions.
The first casualty in my daily routine came a couple of years ago, when the newsstand where I usually buy my morning paper suddenly closed down. I made some inquiries after it failed to reopen over the next few weeks, and some nearby shop owners told me the older woman proprietor had some unspecified health issues and could no longer keep running the shop.
More recently, two other newsstands I frequent, one in the Nanjing Road E. subway station and the other near the university where I teach, closed as well. A third shop near my university also closed abruptly, but reopened a week or two later as the proprietor informed me that she had simply gone on vacation.
I made some inquiries at two of the other newsstands I frequent that remain open, and quickly learned why it was quite easy for shop owners to go on vacation for a week or two and not worry too much about lost income. The proprietors, both retired women, informed me that a newsstand owner these days typically earns just 2,000 to 3,000 yuan per month, and the figure is steadily falling.
Commissions are typically quite low, starting at 10 percent and rising to as much as 14 percent if the owner reaches his or her monthly sales target. Both women indicated they were only doing the job to supplement their income, and I suspect their newsstands will also go idle once they decide to finally retire.
Anyone reading this column probably thinks I’m an old-timer for still reading newspapers, especially when nearly all the news they contain can be read more conveniently and for free on the Internet. I do read quite a bit on the Internet these days, but perhaps it’s just nostalgia that makes me enjoy leafing through a real newspaper to start the day.
Things were quite different in the 1980s, when free enterprises like these newsstands were just getting started and no one had any extra cash to spend on newspapers anyhow. I remember the glass-encased bulletin boards scattered around Beijing that contained pinned-up copies of the latest newspapers.
Local residents would stand around and read the latest news from those bulletin boards, which also seemed to serve as a social gathering points, and as hotbeds of activity in the mornings. Most of the big state-run work units of that era ordered copies of local newspapers as well, so people could also read the latest headlines at work.
You occasionally still see some of those bulletin boards, especially in smaller cities, though it does seem they’re just a few steps away from a permanent march into the history books. Some of the current generation of newsstands have tried to forestall a similar fate by offering newer products like drinks and even souvenirs in a bid to broaden their appeal, though it’s unclear if such moves will offset the loss of their core business.
I’m often an advocate of historical preservation, and do feel a bit sad at the disappearance of the older bulletin boards and now the similar closure of newsstands. But like many similar facets of old Shanghai, these older pieces of the city landscape are probably destined to quietly disappear and will survive only in photographs and people’s memories.