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Death of L.A. Newsstands

Los Angeles is getting slammed by unemployment, foreclosures, tanking home values — and now a devastating hit on local newsstands, one of the city’s oldest neighborhood traditions, which are being edged out by cigarette stores, overwrought “smart growth” and especially the Internet.

Several decades-old institutions have closed in Los Angeles, like Universal News in Hollywood, which dated to the 1950s, and smaller, less high-profile stands, like La Cienega News and Miracle Mile News, both of which now sit empty.

“We were a Pasadena institution,” says Larry Frisina of Bungalow News, which shocked customers when it went dark in Pasadena last year. Now unemployed, Frisina says, “It was in my family for 50 years, I ran it for 30. It’s the only job I’ve ever had.”

The Frisina family weathered several recessions, but he says Pasadena’s overdevelopment and his stand’s difficulty getting the freshest magazines from a distributor who began to favor Ralph’s helped to ruin his robust business in a landmark location on Colorado Boulevard. “We sold probably more magazines and newspapers than anyone in Southern California, but when you can’t conveniently find a place to park, that’s a problem.”

The lack of easy parking and his stand’s difficulty getting product created “a perfect storm. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t weather it any longer.”

World Book and News dates to 1936 and has been in been in Hershey Weisman’s family since 1976; it is still doing well in Hollywood. But forget about expanding. “One guy came to me about a month ago, wanting me to buy his location and I told him, ‘No thanks,’” Weisman says.

Mwari van Maurik, who’s owned Robertson News since 1981, says she’s been “offered several newsstands that have gone out of business. Ten years ago I would have done it, but now there are so many complications: The Internet, magazines are getting more expensive, and people have no money.” She says her great location at the corner of Robertson and Pico keeps her afloat, but the nearby Starbucks recently closed.

Besides her regulars, van Maurik relies on corporate accounts with companies like FOX and PR firms like BWR for steady business, as do Weisman and Kelley Wallace, who owns Above the Fold in Santa Monica. “L.A. is a unique market,” Wallace notes. “It’s very publicity- and PR-driven, so we do have an advantage that, say, the newsstand in Omaha doesn’t have.”

Wallace’s spot on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade guarantees him plenty of foot traffic and tourists, and out-of-town papers are still solid sellers: He stocks 600 foreign papers daily. But, he says, “There’s definitely been a shift in people’s reading habits. Newspapers are stale before they hit the store. Magazines less so — people still want something they can hold while waiting in line for a table at a restaurant or a movie.”

“The Internet has really taken its toll on newsstands, with so many titles going online,” adds Weisman of World Book and News in Hollywood. “There are still a lot of die-hards who want it in print, but the recession has really hurt us; instead of coming in and buying People, Us and Star, now they’re just buying People.”

Diz McNally, a Cyndi Lauper look-alike who works for him, says, “We’re hustling. It’s not easy. I’ll run a copy of Vogue out to people stopped at the light” — a perk of the corner location at Hollywood and Cahuenga.

Izzy Huber, a former construction worker who several months ago bought Melrose News for $17,000, still clings to hope that the newsstand business will be “safer” than the devastated construction industry. Huber is meeting with distributors and hopes to be “ready for business” soon, but until that day comes, his stand is selling soft drinks — no news at Melrose News.

In fact, many Los Angeles newsstands are quickly converting to cigarette shops. Sunset News in West Hollywood is now Grand Tobacco. Vardan Kagramanyan, the owner of Swing News Stand on Sunset Strip across from Chateau Marmont, hopes to sell magazines but stocks only cigarettes, smoking paraphernalia, soft drinks and PETaPOTTY indoor pet-waste stations.

La Brea Cigarettes was once Mersha News. Former owner Yohannes Mersha says simply that his newsstand “didn’t work. ... The last eight to 12 months, I saw it go down, so I finally decided enough is enough.”

Now, Mersha owns and drives taxis. When he drives past his former newsstand and sees the “La Brea Cigarettes” sign instead of “Mersha News,” he says, “It’s sad, very sad, but what can you do?”

Frisina found himself smack in the middle of “smart-growth” fever in Pasadena, watching parking as it was wiped out by social engineers who absurdly hoped drivers would use public transit. Instead, he says, customers simply vanished. “We were like a Cheers [bar]. People would come in on Sunday, buy a newspaper and have a conversation for an hour or two.” Even now, some of his old customers still call him up just to chat.

“Pasadena used to be a quaint city,” he laments of the plastic-looking, overpriced, less friendly, mini-Manhattan-ization well under way. “Our store’s been empty ever since I moved out. Now when I go down there, it looks dead to me.”