What It’s Like to Sell One Step Away Newspapers

I hung out with vendor Charles for an hour. Despite his guidance, I failed to sell a single newspaper.

One Step Away vendor Charles (left) and the author | Photo: Ashley Gerhart, One Step Away

One Step Away vendor Charles (left) and the author | Photo: Ashley Gerhart, One Step Away

The first thing Charles asked me was if I liked metal music.

He said he wanted to go to the Cannibal Corpse show when they hit the TLA. He had a Slayer logo on his phone. He looked a little disappointed when I told him my metal tastes ran closer to industrial — what, I was a teenager in the 90s — then changed the subject to The Doors and Led Zeppelin. I told him I liked “The Battle of Evermore.” I don’t know how well that went over.

I met Charles due to the Big Sell Off, a one-day fundraising collaboration between street newspapers around the world. Charles is a vendor of One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper. The paper, which is written and produced by the homeless, is in its fifth year. Charles keeps his papers in an old bag from Crash Bang Boom. He’s definitely the most metal vendor.

Here’s how it works: Vendors purchase the newspaper for a quarter. They sell it on the street for a dollar, and keep the money. Not only is the paper a way to read about homeless issues from the perspective of the homeless — not one you normally get to read — One Step Away says most vendors who come to the program use the money earned from hawking papers to secure their own housing.

Yesterday, I was a guest vendor for OSA’s Big Sell Off promotion — along with some other locals, like actor Nakia Dillard, the Daily News’s Stephanie Farr and KYW 1060’s Cherri Gregg. Charles and I would be teaming up to sell papers outside Liberty Place. We began to bundle up in our “body armor,” as he calls it. “The worst thing about these vests is they only come in one size,” Charles says as I put on a neon yellow One Step Away vendor vest over my big snowboarding coat. I try to fasten the velcro on the front. It quickly comes undone.

One Step Away must have used some algorithm to set me up with the vendor whose cynicism most closely matched mine. He’s a little disappointed we’re not heading to his regular location; another vendor usually sits at 17th and Chestnut, and he’s worried we’ll run into him. Plus, he says, getting a groove in a spot takes time — we only have an hour, and he’s not at one of his normal spots.

Charles began selling One Step Away three years ago. He first heard of the paper when he was hanging out at Occupy Philly in Dilworth Plaza in late 2011. “A man came up to me and said, ‘Want to buy a newspaper to help the homeless?'” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m homeless!’” The man returned to him later with information on signing up to be a vendor. After a little hemming and hawing on the idea, he gave it a try.

He bounces around town, sticking to three or four spots. He and another vendor tend to split the area in front of Whole Foods at 10th and South. There are no set locations for One Step Away vendors — though there’s an informal hierarchy. If you’ve “claimed” an empty spot, it’s generally yours if you want it. Charles said he stepped into two of his locations, including the Whole Foods spot, after other vendors moved on to full-time jobs. Some vendors just walk around the city and sell papers as they go. “I want to try that sometime,” Charles says, sounding eager for the challenge.

I live and work downtown, and I’ve been purchasing One Step Away papers since its launch. Selling papers with Charles made me realize what a hustle it is. We handle our tag-team newspaper sales facing each other on the street like chuggers do. Charles sells papers as if he’s a carnival barker: “Excuse me, one dollar donation to help the homeless? Help the homeless for a one dollar donation?” He’s loud and he’s good. He sells a few papers. I steal his style, I try some new takes on it — “Just one dollar donation to help the homeless — plus you get a newspaper!” — but over the course of the hour fail to sell a single paper. Charles is better at charming the passers-by on Chestnut Street.

Most people generally ignore the vendors. Charles doesn’t really mind, he says, but prefers when someone just says “No” instead of ignoring him. “Sometimes I say, ‘Hey, you dropped something,’ and then they hear me,” he says. At one point, after his spiel, a man puts his hands high up in the air. “Hey, this isn’t a stick-up,” Charles says. No one is outwardly rude except a group of businesspeople who have a conversation right in front of Charles, blocking him from selling papers. They decline to buy one.

Of course, Charles sold a few. I didn’t sell any. We decide to blame my Sixers hat; he’s wearing an Eagles hat, a team that has been relatively more successful recently. But he’s also just good at it. I am just not that good at this type of hustle. I should have known, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be to try to sell these papers. People just pass by. It is nicer to just say no. We return after an hour for a post-sell luncheon, and we chat about the Super Bowl. Even though I didn’t sell many papers, we agree, at least I did a better job than Pete Carroll did on that last play.

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