Struggling newsstand a last bastion of real Pike Place character

Lee Lauckhart at First & Pike News. Credit: Laura Kaufman

This is a story about First & Pike News, the only stand left in Seattle that sells nothing but publications — no coffee or convenience items. It’s also the story of owner Lee Lauckhart, who keeps the place going — although sales have dropped by half in the last 15 years — plus his offbeat clerks and the band of eccentric characters who live nearby in subsidized housing.

“We’re the last of the Mohicans,” said Lauckhart, a soft-spoken man of 70, with pale blue eyes and a button on his apron that reads, “Veterans for Peace.” “It’s a struggle,” he responded to a concerned couple from Hoboken, as he rings up their Harper’s. “The only thing that keeps me going is the location,” — in touristy Pike Place Market.

I first discovered First & Pike News — formerly “Read All About It,” with its hollering newsboy logo — when I was considering a move to Seattle. I was craving the Sunday Los Angeles Times, but Lauckhart told me that the distributor had gone belly up and together, we mourned the decline of the newspaper industry. He admitted he was keeping the stand solvent by taking no salary and living on his Social Security check. That someone felt so strongly about the written word gave me one more reason to move to the Emerald City. “The newsstand is a shadow of its former self,” Lauckhart later said, displaying a photo of Sunday papers that once soared to the ceiling along the stand’s back wall. Several dozen Sunday newspapers from around the country have dwindled to a few. Since the demise of the Post-Intelligencer’s print edition, he sells fewer than 100 local Sunday papers.

Still, the store is the region’s top dealer in foreign language periodicals. The area’s diversity is reflected in newspapers in Russian and Yiddish, and magazines in Chinese, Arabic, Italian, and French. Mel Gibson is splashed across the glossy cover of Arrajol, which bills itself as, “The Monthly Magazine for the Arab Man.” On a recent afternoon, customers requested publications on needlework, industrial design, and yachting. Another local picked up his special order of, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper for the Windy City’s black community. It’s the kind of place where dogs strain at their leashes for a free Milkbone — always in stock. Including Binx, a floppy-eared terrier pulling local novelist Randy Sue Coburn, who stops by daily.

And then there are the characters — past and present — who haunt the newsstand. Damaged by birth or by circumstance, it is here that Lauckhart and his clerks offer the dignity that society at large denies them. There was Ollie Olsen — a one-armed former news seller with a short fuse, trusted enough to make bank deposits for a nearby restaurant. And Lyle McBride, the stand’s only illiterate vendor, full of old world insults and sayings that inspired their own book. There is also the mute regular with the flowing beard who managed to catch a shoplifter. “I’m proud of the fact that they are able to hang with us, rather than being in an institution,“ Lauckhart said. “It’s an oasis where they can live life without being locked up.”

Lauckhart grew up in Washington state and studied environmental science, but journalism was in his blood. For a time he headed east to New York City, where he sold newspapers near his father-in-law’s newsstand across from the Empire State Building. Lauckhart’s grandfather was the publisher of the Bothell Sentinel from the early 1900s to 1932. And his uncle, a reporter, spilled ink in Chicago and Washington, D.C., before heading to Alaska, where he bought the Nome Nugget.

After his 1975 divorce, Lauckhart returned to Seattle and settled into a stint as a horseshoe nail jeweler. But it wasn’t profitable, and friends pestered him to open a newspaper store. Seby Nahmias, a Turkish immigrant, had been licensed to hawk papers at the corner of First and Pike since 1914. Lauckhart asked Nahmias to be his partner in the new venture and “Read All About It” celebrated its grand opening on October 25, 1979 – complete with a searchlight, champagne, and copies of the Nome Nugget, which it still carries.

Nahmias lived with his brother, Ike, and sister Zelda in a house on 16th Avenue that their late father won in a card game. Meanwhile, Lauckhart and his daughter Aana called a rented studio above the market home. Her bedroom was a converted closet. Aana would hang at the newsstand after school. “I was their mascot. I’d be like, five, and they’d pop me on a stool and teach me how to sell the paper.” She launches into the patter of an old-time newsboy: “Getcha Times and P.I. here. If you can’t read, you can look at the pick-chas.”

“There was a shopping cart lady with a giant dreadlock,” she recalled. “I thought she was 100 years old. She was hunched over and wearing a black quilted coat. Every time I saw her, she would ask me how was my day at school. Then she would give me 25 cents to buy an ice cream. This was a woman who dug through the trash for her dinner.” At 16, Christmas dinner with her Dad was at a greasy spoon frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers. And when she married, “I had a big fancy wedding. One guest, Lucille, wasn’t homeless, but a market character. She wore her wig sideways. She gave me matching champagne flutes with dried champagne at the bottom. She came at Dad’s request.”

In those early days, up to 40 market characters loitered around the store. “It was like a circus,” said Lauckhart. One of them was Seby’s brother, Ike, a former shoeshine man in Pioneer Square, who sold armloads of papers around the market.  A newspaper tribute to Ike, described him as having a, “thin fringe of hair over a greasy sportcoat.” He was barely over 5 feet tall and had a cigar clenched in his four remaining teeth. “Even though his nightly take was on the order of $2, Ike’s merchant customers sent him home with salami ends, vegetables just past their prime, fried chicken, two day old bread and change to spare. Ike used to say, ‘whatdaya gonna do? You don’t work, you don’t eat,’ ” wrote Steve Dunnington, a former partner at the newsstand.

In his final years, when Ike had a hard time keeping himself clean, Lauckhart and a local social worker would take him to the Market’s medical clinic to shower after hours and buy him new clothes at Goodwill. After he passed, advocates for Ike and his sister Zelda helped clean out their house and discovered considerable amounts of money — said to be a quarter-million bucks — stuffed into shopping bags hung on the wall. Those funds assured Zelda lived comfortably in a group home for the rest of her life.

Back when Seby Nahmias hawked papers on the corner, a local who called himself Ollie Olsen showed up. Pretty soon, Olsen would man the kiosk while Nahmias made deliveries. He had escaped from an orphanage in Arkansas and eventually headed west. “He was a crazy loon,” recalled Lauckhart. “He had one arm and he was always swinging it around like a windmill.” Nevertheless, he was so trusted, “The Unique” restaurant across the street drafted him to make bank deposits.

But there was a dark side to Olsen. His real name was Herman Schultz. Attacked for his German heritage during World War II, Olsen remade himself as a Swede. When someone called Olsen by his birth name, he would fly into a rage. During one argument at the meat market, he picked up a butcher knife. A security guard tried to handcuff him but since he only had one arm, the guard was stuck trying to cuff an empty sleeve, recalled Lauckhart, who insisted Olsen was harmless.

Olsen was so beloved, vendors started a fan club, complete with official buttons. When his television died — he had over-watered a plant atop it — vendors chipped in to buy him a new set, but he was less than pleased. Lauckhart bends down and squints, to demonstrate how the near-sighted Ollie inspected the gift. “I’d rather have a Zenith,” he chirped, as Ollie. “Anywhere else in America, Ollie would have been locked up, drugged out of his mind and tied to the bed. But he was able to get along in the Market.”

Perhaps the most cherished character of all was Lyle McBride, who in 1962 arrived here inside a boxcar. The bantam McBride, “was a tough hobo guy when he came here,” recalled clerk Rebecca Steele. “He was full of old-world insults. He would give people a hard time and say shocking things — but they secretly liked it.” Former clerk Janet Brown called McBride, “The Master of Obscenity.” And 20-year newsstand vet Bill Lundgren dubbed him, “The Prime Minister of Euphemism.”

If someone asked McBride how he was doing, he would snap, “Finer than frog hair,” or, “What the hell’s it to ya anyway?” He enjoyed provoking people and delighted in getting the figurative goat of Steele, the stand’s only current female employee, “muttering darkly about women’s lib” whenever she asserted herself. He was a gentleman with female customers, “and then the SECOND they stepped away, he’d turn to me and say the most stop-your-breathing gutter comment,” recalled clerk Wilber Hathaway, who began documenting his worthy-of-B-movies patter. If someone complained about prices, McBride would growl, “You’ve got an honest face but it won’t fit in the cash register.” When he sold the Racing Form, he’d assure, “All the winners are in there.” If he wanted silence, he’d command, “Freeze your teeth and give your tongue a sleigh ride.” He hated it when someone wished him a nice day. He’d retort, “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have!”

Ironically, the man with a gift for words — he dubbed rain, “liquid sunshine” — couldn’t read. “He was the only illiterate person who worked for me,” said Lauckhart, later explaining that he was never officially on the payroll. Although McBride was educated at Catholic schools, Lauckhart suspects he suffered from dyslexia. But for that, McBride could have been an accomplished writer — Seattle’s answer to LA’s hard-scrabble Charles Bukowski — toiling as did Bukowski at the post office, then scribbling stories on yellow legal pads.

Lauckhart met McBride when he was a horseshoe nail jeweler. “He was a drunk and looking for work. He had been a night clerk at a $2 a night flop, bootlegging liquor on Sunday,” that is, selling it under the table. Finally at age 50, McBride determined to sober up, by spending a few weeks in the mountains. Eventually he turned to Lauckhart. So the news dealer drove him and his tent to the Cascades for a week. Then it was two weeks at Mount Rainier. Finally McBride bought a camper and ensconced himself at Mineral Lake from March to September. Meanwhile, Lauckhart took care of his clerk’s affairs, with McBride’s disability checks.

Then in his early 70s, McBride’s heart began failing — lungs weakened by smoking since age 10. Doctors talked him into a bypass. “He wanted us to tell everyone he was having a sex change operation,” Lauckhart recalled. Afterward, tethered to hospital monitors, he would later declare, “I was an astronaut, unfit for flight.” “Even nearing his last day, I reported that I had something for him,” recalled Lauckhart. His response: “What is it? A body bag?”

McBride left his body on February 10, 2010 and a wake was held that July, on what would have been his 74th birthday. Lauckhart and the crew collected his sayings in The Book of Lyle, which they printed up for the occasion. The cover featured a photo of McBride puffing — in front of a no smoking sign. In death, McBride had found his own, “Black Sparrow Press,” the small publisher that had championed Bukowski in life. The deceased also attended his memorial . . . in the form of a life-sized cardboard bust that now keeps Lauckhart company in his office. “He was my best friend,” Lauckhart said wistfully, looking at the black and white likeness. “If I was especially upset about something I could call him up and cuss him out. He loved it! He thought it was a good service he could provide. After he died I asked if anyone else would take over that job, but nobody volunteered.”

McBride was perhaps the last of the great market characters. By the 1990s, the number of lost souls had diminished, Lauckhart suspects, due to new psychiatric drugs becoming available. Still a few remain. Among the current characters inhabiting the newsstand is a flat-topped local, nicknamed for his long grey beard, which meanders past his waist. He’s unable to form words, but clerks say he browses for hours and plays unofficial store detective. One day he spied an older German woman buying a travel guide. He pointed to her satchel and stuttered. Blond pomped clerk Chad Smith pulled out about $40 worth of magazines she had planned to spirit away.

Another customer, a hoarder, walks back and forth carrying armloads of newspapers, which he claims are building his biceps, according to Smith. After his apartment was overtaken by them, he moved into a group home. That didn’t stop his collecting. “He finds a spot on the ground in the market and pretty soon he starts piling up newspapers,” Lauckhart recalled. “Security finds them. ‘What the hell is this?’ they ask and they move them out. It broke his heart,” said Lauckhart. On a recent afternoon, Smith made change for a recovering crackhead, who used to scrounge for rocks on the sidwalk. Another longhaired guy strolled up and timidly inquired, “ ‘Can I get the High Times? I may have hung out over the hour limit, but I do buy something.’ ”

If only more people would. Though there was an uptick in magazine sales during the 1994 tech bubble, and there’s still a steady stream of summer tourists, it’s otherwise quiet. When George Cottrell first started working at the stand in 1999, two clerks would hustle during the noontime crush. “At times there wasn’t even a spare moment to pick up all of the cash strewn hurriedly onto the little counter we have,” he recalled.  

“By any measure, the newsstand isn’t sustainable,” said Aana Lauchhart, who believes her father maintains the stand largely out of loyalty to his six part-time employees. They return the allegiance — he’s only had about 35 workers in more than three decades of business. “It’s not like anybody is getting rich working in the freezing cold with sideways falling rain,” she mused. Lauckhart says he pays for his employees’ health insurance and concedes he may eventually relent and add sundries — rather than trim the hours of his staff.

Lauckhart said he manages to survive on his Social Security check because his personal expenses are low — his house is paid for, he drives a 30-year-old clunker when he’s not taking the bus. And he’s still able to travel occasionally, helped by frequent flier miles from credit cards.

If a primary human instinct is to surround ourselves with family and friends to witness our lives, Lauckhart and his vendors serve that purpose for those on society’s margins. “He likes the peculiar people who have nowhere else to go and don’t fit in anywhere else,” noted Steele. Local journalists, though, haven’t always recognized the sense of community he nurtures. Lauckhart showed me a snapshot of a market regular, nicknamed, “Manuel the Drunk,” possessor of wild eyes. “He was drunk 24-seven for 30 years. I never saw him when he wasn’t drinking,” Lauckhart recalled. After his death about eight years ago, there was a newspaper article lamenting those who perished alone and friendless, including Manuel.

“We objected. No, he didn’t — we knew him,” Lauckhart said, his voice rising. “He had friends all over.”

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