A newsstand near Philadelphia City Hall Credit: Paul Sable / Flickr Creative Commons

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Newsstands are slowly disappearing in Philadelphia. At the ones that remain, owners are either looking to sell, or embracing a business model that doesn’t rely on sales of newspapers and cigarettes.

The increasing dominance of digital news and lower demand for tobacco products have pummeled revenue at newsstands throughout the city, according to operators who spoke with Billy Penn. Much of the business now relies on the state lottery, snacks, and display advertising sold through the Newsstand Association of Philadelphia (NAP).

Philadelphia currently has 96 active newsstand licenses, down 41% since 2012, according to the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections. It’s not just a Philly trend, and the decline has been happening for years. Over 1,500 newsstands operated in 1950s New York; they now number closer to 300.

Atul Amin, 62, is one of the local newsstand owners looking to sell. Working in front of City Hall on a summer Wednesday afternoon, he wore a red and white t-shirt, jeans, and a small blue cloth mask on his face.

“You want to buy?” he asked, with a wink.

Multicolored scratch-off cards fluttered on the back wall of his stand, next to a collection of Cheez-it and Cheetos packs for sale. A few copies of the Philadelphia Daily News, a tabloid version of The Inquirer, lay underneath the metal counter.

When Amin bought his business in 1989 for around $35,000, the Daily News had its own newsroom — and there were many other papers next to it on the stand’s display. He’d moved to the U.S. from India a couple of years prior, seeking opportunities for a better life, he said. NAP’s website calls newsstand owners like Amin “a visible reminder of the hope in the American Dream.”

Nationwide, more than 2,500 newspapers have folded since 2005, and Amin is ready to sell. He’s unsure how long he can continue working — but he’s struggling to find a buyer amid uncertain times.

Another member of the old guard, Rajendra Kothari, has been working in his newsstand at 16th and JFK Blvd. for 22 years. He bought it for $30k when he moved to Philadelphia from India, as a way to support his family.

Now he’s trying to unload the business for whatever price he can get.

Stacks of unsold cigarette boxes sat in wooden cubbies at the back of his stand. Tobacco sales were once a staple of the industry, but they’ve dropped off.  Kothari blamed the $2-per-pack cigarette tax, imposed by the city in 2014 to fund schools. Other stand owners said they couldn’t sell cigarettes because of a 2016 city law banning new tobacco permits within 500 feet of any K-12 school.

“Everything is gone,” Kothari said. “Nobody buys nothing.”

‘Lucky people win at lucky newsstand’

At the stands that once peddled the daily news as their top product, lottery tickets have become the lifeblood. The commission they get from each lottery sale is small, according to NAP’s website.

Around 1 p.m. at Amin’s stand by City Hall, a three-person line formed: a businessman, a security guard and a young person with a Nike backpack. They appeared to be there for lottery tickets — Pa. Lottery day drawings end at 1:05 p.m. One of them approached the stand with his numbers written on a slip of paper, which Amin typed into a small touch screen.

“People want easy money,” Amin said.

At Neil Patel’s stand behind Jefferson Hospital, winning lottery tickets and scratch offs are taped to the top of the plexiglass panel separating Patel from his customers. Some even come with accompanying pictures and captions.

“Lucky people win at lucky newsstand,” one read. “Hallelujah.”

Patel, 43, said he’s worked in the newsstand business for 17 years, first as an employee and now as an owner. He said the lottery is the biggest part of his business these days.

Patel is optimistic about the industry. He thinks most stands that closed did so because of COVID and will reopen.

A series of city ordinances over the last decade have expanded what Philadelphia’s newsstands can sell, adding drinks, over-the-counter drugs, prepaid phone cards, museum tickets, and more.

One newsstand owner who operates on Market Street just purchased the stand in April. He’s younger, around 30 years old, and was fearful of connecting his name to his business. The stand had closed for a while during the pandemic, so he got it for cheap, he said.

Still, he is happy with his new job, a big departure from his previous work in pharmaceutical manufacturing.”I want to work for myself,” he said.

Like some of his predecessors in the business, he moved to the U.S. from India in 2014 to be with his family. But he doesn’t see the newsstand as a key to the American Dream, just as a stepping stone.

“I want to grow up, that’s what it is,” he said, standing outside his stand in the afternoon heat, waiting for customers to come.

“I’m just starting from small to go bigger,” he added. “That’s my dream.”