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.
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