Once in a while, someone comes into Johnny's Newsstand who is not a regular customer. Imagine!
The Johnny of Johnny's Newsstand is Johnny Kareski, and such occurrences fascinate him. Exhibit A:
"Check this out," he says, from behind the cash register where he keeps a guitar, sheet music, his first computer (so new it smells showroom fresh) and a specific eye for detail. "Just last Tuesday a guy comes in, looks like someone's chasing him. Preoccupied. Maybe even hunted? Haunted? He tells me he just got off a train, intending to relocate, but before the train got here the DEA surrounded him and took $19,000 he had with him, in cash, which he was going to use to do this relocating, and all they left him was barely enough to get away from the train. He came in here looking for job insights in rural Colorado. Trying to lose himself, maybe? You gotta feel for a guy like that."
Even if he's lying?
"Yeah, that's just it," Johnny says, immediately seeing your point, and then raising it. "His was certainly only one side of the story. But still, losing all that cash. I told him he needed to find a lawyer. Of course, when it's cash, what can you prove?"
And what do you expect when you carry large quantities of cash on trains in the middle of the night?
"Of course," Johnny agrees. "Not smart. I sent him to a Western-wear store to get a copy of the Fencepost. Thought he could maybe find a job in the rural classifieds. Like he would blend right in, ha. He was fortysomething, balding, with a thick gold chain with a medallion, like you see on TV. What was he gonna do, the City Slickers thing, maybe?"
Any Johnny's regular would be able to take this opening and run with it -- perhaps into a discussion of What Has Become of the Western Dude Ranch? or Billy Crystal: A Retrospective. When you come in here to buy a newspaper, presenting yourself before Johnny with an open countenance and an air of having things to do in general but not much to do right at this moment, you will be drawn into conversations like these, perhaps weekly or, in the case of Johnny's wife, whom he met right here, for life.
Exhibit B: Bill, fiftyish, white hair, crisp chinos, Top-Siders, windbreaker, hand jingling the change in his pocket. Has been here, if not daily, then hundreds of times before.
"Hi, Bill," Johnny says. "How ya doin'?"
"You? No Buffalo Sports News yet?"
"Yeah, I managed to get one for you. Here you go." Johnny forks over the small tabloid, which features University of Colorado sports exclusively. That done, he begins sorting through a pile of paperwork.
"Oh, yeah!" Bill says, quickly scanning the headlines. "Way to go!" Pause. "Say, Johnny. What's that you got there?"
"Oh, hmm, Bill, it looks like a mountain-climbing calendar I got from Outside magazine. Are you into that sort of thing?"
"No, no, I don't climb mountains," Bill says, leaning onto the counter. "I take the Geographic, of course. You know what I think?"
"What's that, Bill?"
"I think those guys that climb up those mountains have a little problem with putting their life and limb in danger."
Johnny concurs. "I would rather chop wood all day and look at a pile of wood when I'm done than go to a health club and come out with a pile of nothing," he offers.
"You're right. You're right."
That wraps up Bill for the day, though certainly not for the week.
But let's say you come to Johnny's for news of the printed variety, as opposed to the oral tradition. Or suppose you prefer to lose yourself in the latest edition of Deviant Sex Orgy, American Shotgun or Black Man's Swimsuit. Your body language can make this clear, simply by following a time-honored tradition: You turn your back and disappear into what Johnny calls the "boys' corner."
"Collectively," he explains, "those magazines are known as 'sophisticates.' What 'sophisticate' means is T&A, smut and sleaze. The boys' corner is also good if you want to read about guns. Big trucks. Fishing. Golf."
And if you want to take something from the boys' corner home, you will even be offered the classic plain brown paper wrapping -- no small talk attached.
"It's a whole different feel than a Barnes & Noble," Johnny says. "Bill would rather pick up his Buffalo Sporting News than have it delivered, because he's the kind of guy who likes to be taken care of. He always gives me a bottle of vodka at Christmastime. I'm one of those service personnel you hear about."
Another thing you may be hearing about: Johnny's is closing, after fifteen years of business in a basement off Champa Street.
Very little marketing strategy was brought into play in 1985, the year Johnny's Newsstand opened for business.
"I had been an officer in the Army, done five years at CU, and I was just kicking around my cabin in the mountains," Johnny recalls. "A good friend of mine was the property manager here, and he thought this space would make a good newsstand, and it sounded okay to me. We had an idea to find a distributor, find the stuff we felt like selling, open the doors and hope like hell it worked."
It wasn't that Johnny held a deep interest in arcane magazines -- he will crack open a Time or Newsweek every once in a while, but that's it. And it wasn't that the Newsstand was an astute precursor of the Internet-cafe-housed-in-an-airy-space-lined-with-slick-publications trend to come. In fact, Johnny's was even more cramped fifteen years ago than it is today, with perhaps one hundred square feet of retail space, all entirely filled with cigarette smoke. To customers originally from Chicago or New York, however, the hazy air gave the newsstand an authentic feel. To customers with a literary past, it brought back short stories from the '30s in which a private eye buys the afternoon paper from a newsstand and stands on a busy corner, in a hat, and maybe even in the rain, reading.
In the story, or even in nonfictional towns back East, the guy behind the newsstand counter always greets customers by name -- a skill with which Johnny was born. He is possessed of the particular alertness and diplomacy peculiar to bartenders, newspaper vendors and some artificial-nail technicians. It could be argued that this is a dying art.
"Tell me about it," Johnny says, launching into his description of the waxing and waning news markets of the past decade and a half. "The first three years I worked every day but Sunday. In the beginning, the oil bust was on and there was a huge demand for out-of-state papers, because everyone was dying to leave town. We got the L.A. Times, the papers from San Diego, Portland, Boston, Houston. A lot were hauled in by Greyhound bus."
Before his first year ended, he remembers, downtown was "a ghost town."
"Then a few years went by and things turned around," he continues. "I heard a disgust for the whole West Coast, and people thinking Colorado was actually a pretty cool place. So they sold their houses in California for an obscene amount of money and came back here, bought a more reasonable house, and started a business."
The same people who'd left town in 1985 now came back to Johnny for Gear and American History and Yo! and A and Quarter Horse and Fantasy Baseball Index and Amazing Stories, whose cover tease last week was this: "Sex with Betty Lou was deadly!"
As the years went by, magazine fads came and went -- from sci-fi fanzines advertising "Trek's top-fifty sexiest" to the newest entries in the boys' corner, most notably Maxim and Stuff. "They're flying outta here," Johnny says, "and this is why: Maxim is basically the magazine of choice in a frat house for when you have to perform your morning constitutional. Everything's short and manageable -- T&A and lists of stuff. Whereas Stuff is all that, plus gear. Collectively, they are Cosmo for men."
Other than the New York Times and the Daily Racing Form, however, demand for out-of-state papers has dwindled to almost nothing. "All you gotta do is jump on the Internet," Johnny says. "You can get any information about another city you want. Besides, no one's leaving Colorado now. And when you think about it, the whole idea of paying six dollars for something with less shelf life than a carton of milk is kind of twisted. I now let the Tattered Cover take the loss."
By the mid-'90s, Tattered Cover had opened ten blocks away in LoDo; Barnes & Noble and Media Play were even closer to Johnny's. "People have time to stop one place during their lunch hour," he theorizes, "and with those big places coming into downtown, there was less time for me."
Unless, of course, you were looking to indulge in what Johnny calls "a cultural habit," which consisted of free-ranging discussion, camaraderie, a shot and perhaps a beer. This is what the regulars began to find at Johnny's erratically held Every Afternoon Clubs. "My friends started coming down after work, and we'd listen to music and party to where we could hardly even walk," he recalls. "Around nine or ten I'd close up, go into this dark room I kept in the bowels of the building and fall onto a futon. The next morning it was wake up, go to the health club for a shower, come back and start over. This place was the anchor for my life. But lately, jeez, my drinking has gotten almost to zero anymore." He says this with the exact inflection used by people who haven't had time to work out lately but know they should.
"Yeah, probably," he says, "but also, I look around me and see that now I am that uninhibited person I was getting drunk in order to turn into, so why keep recovering from a hangover?"
But also, he's married for the first time, at 48, to Carolyn, an insurance adjuster he met at his very own Every Afternoon Club.
"You know the way he can talk to anyone about anything? Well, the way he was with me was very similar to that," Carolyn remembers. "And then we got away to his cabin in the mountains, away from all the people, and actually had private conversations. And I guess I found his love for life very contagious."
"It sure didn't happen from the am-I-gonna-get-laid philosophy," Johnny adds. "We were platonic for a long time, and now I'm married to my best friend."
This will come in handy as Johnny adjusts to life without Johnny's. His lease expires in August and, with a current profit averaging $3.50 per hour, he's elected not to renew. In the remaining time, he will "entertain offers. Someone with the ability to make it lucrative would be nice. You could start serving coffee, which costs twenty cents to make, and you can charge two bucks a cup for it," he suggests.
"But, personally, I gotta move on. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to buy it, they can just call me. I'll break down what it's all worth: the fixtures, the inventory, the blue sky, the good will. Try to put a value on that."
"Oh, I don't know, I musta gotten suckered," the man says, as he puts his change in his pocket and then puts his Daily Racing Form into that same pocket.
"You got suckered? Surely this couldn't have happened?" Johnny says. "Surely you were not the one who was waylaid by various ladies in various years?"
"Yeah, man, thanks for embarrassing me. Now I can eat lunch with a clear conscience."
The next guy is not up to ribbing of any sort, so Johnny opens with an easier line. "Things better at home?"
"Better," the guys says, a little uncertainly. "My wife is..."
"Sure," Johnny prompts. "She's better. But it's hard. And when you're working for buttheads..."
"Sure!" The guy agrees. "And she had surgery on her mouth! And she wakes up thinking about work. I mean, just dreading it..."
The guy pays for his cigarettes. Next up is a young would-be wrestling promoter who has read almost all of WCW and is now slinking away without having bought anything, his long, black Shaft-style coat brushing a rack of paperbacks on his way out. After that, it's quiet for a moment -- but something's about to happen. Maybe the "16th Street vermin who distract me and rip me off," Johnny says, "or those poor kids who run away from home and scrounge up money and give me this sticky, wadded-up handful of change."
The door opens, letting in a burst of Vietnamese-food smell from the adjoining restaurant and a guy in a windbreaker and chinos -- a very basic-looking customer. Not a regular, but something about him familiar all the same.
"Hey, guy," Johnny says. "What's up?"
He leans forward onto the counter. Things have just gotten interesting again.