Contributor Editor Holly McCall walks a mile in our vendors’ shoes, sharing what she learns along the way.
Looks easy standing out there selling magazines, doesn’t it? It can’t be hard: All you do is find a busy intersection, put on a smile and wait for the Abrahams to roll in. Or so I thought. As editor of The Contributor, I decided to experience the vendor process as much as I could — from initial training to selecting an untapped corner to set up shop. I got tips from our vendors: “Wave and smile,” says Jackie, a newspaper and magazine vendor since he was a kid selling Nashville’s now-defunct afternoon paper, The Nashville Banner. “Drink a lot of water,” vendor Joey tweeted as I started a shift. We have some really successful vendors, many of whom have been working the same spot for years at a time. It’s not that I didn’t trust them, but still: How hard could it be? Well, let me walk you through it.
Program Manager Carolina Smith holds training sessions for new vendors every Thursday at Room In The Inn, where The Contributor is based. Smith speaks in a firm, clear voice: “We provide a product at wholesale price and you keep 100 percent of the proceeds,” she begins, before explaining to potential vendors the First Amendment. “You have a constitutional right to sell this.”
Attendees get Room In The Inn points for going to class and of the 11 people in the room, two are dozing soundly. Two others are very engaged. One of those, a tall middle-aged woman, takes notes and responds to Smith’s prompts.
“Why don’t we ask for tips?” Smith asks the training participants.
“Not classy,” responds the woman. “It blurs the line into panhandling.”
A man peppers Smith with questions about whether there are daily sales meetings and if we offer package deals. He’s clearly got a background in sales, and I think he’ll do well. After an hour, when Smith has finished going over The Contributor's vending rules, we adjourn. Several people head downstairs to sign vendor contracts and start with five free issues. One still sleeps in a chair.
ROSA PARKS BOULEVARD AND DOMINICAN WAY
Loaded with 20 magazines in my official backpack, I don my yellow vest, clip my badge on, and stride to the curb in Metro Center. Within 20 minutes, I learn standing on concrete in a Nashville August is tiring. The temperature is over 90 degrees, and my Diet Sundrop is warming rapidly.
I’m planning on spending at least half a day on my corner or until I sell all my magazines. I use the tips I’ve picked up from vendors: I walk up and down the line of cars stopped at the red light, waving and smiling. An hour into my project, my feet are sore, even though I’m wearing normally comfortable running shoes, and I’ve not sold a magazine yet.
Here’s what I learn while there: There are a lot of really nice cars driving around in North Nashville. I see more Mercedes than I can keep track of and a handful of Range Rovers. One Maserati. Also, Nashville’s gig economy is strong. Every fifth car has either a Lyft or an Uber sticker on the front windshield, and in some cases, both.
Not surprisingly, few people make eye contact with me. Most are fiddling with their phones while stopped, and to be fair, would likely be doing that whether or not a vendor was standing next to their car.
I also note African-American drivers are far more likely to acknowledge my presence than are white drivers. The nicer the car, the less likely the driver is to make eye contact. Men wave more than women, but I get no catcalls or inappropriate comments.
I also sell no magazines. One gentleman rolls his window down and hands me a single dollar bill.
EIGHTH AND WEDGEWOOD AVENUES
Despite counsel from successful vendors that it takes time to build up recognition and success at one location, I move to Eighth and Wedgewood Avenues. The red lights stay red longer than at Metro Center and traffic is always backed up on both streets as people enter and exit I-65 on Wedgewood.
I’m dressed a little differently. The prior day, I’d worn a white polo-style shirt, older but non-ripped jeans, and running shoes with no makeup. Today, I’ve got on casual pants and a print blouse, sandals with a wedge heel, and a full face of makeup to see if it impacts my sales. I’ve barely settled my backpack on a nearby telephone pole when someone is hollering at me.
One guy in safety yellow approaches, carrying his hard hat. “Hey,” he says. “I went through (Contributor) training a few months ago but I got another job. If I want to do this to make extra money for the holidays, am I still good?"
I congratulate him on his job and tell him he’s welcome to sell magazines any time he wants. I’m back to working my corner, and drivers are back to keeping their heads down, pretending not to see me.
Once again, I sell no magazines, so despite my plan to give all my earnings back to the Contributor's vendor program, I still only have one dollar to show for two days of work as a vendor.
I’ve done this for a few days, but our vendors do this every day and every week, in brutally hot weather and stingingly cold weather. Most are cheerful and some say it’s their dream job. They can set their own hours and their earnings have gotten many out of homelessness. But others have told me about the people who make a point to roll windows down and yell, “Get a job!” or treat them like panhandlers. None of our vendors are getting rich doing this.
Selling street magazines is a tough job, and not that I didn't before, but I have an especially greater appreciation for the vendors of The Contributor. I think I’ll probably go back to my Metro Center location once a week or so and see if I can build up a clientele. Maybe I’ll get more pointers from our pros.