Why you should stop and chat to your local street paper vendor

Writer Olivia Perfetti encourages street paper customers to take some time to speak with their local vendor after getting to know two hardworking sellers from Groundcover News in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

By Olivia Perfetti

So you recently purchased a street paper, but how much do you know about the person who sold it to you? Even if you talked with them for a couple minutes, there’s still a lot more to learn.

Everyone has a story to tell. Sometimes all it takes is a simple conversation to find out what that story is. And so that’s what I did to find out more about two of my local Groundcover vendors and the work they do in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Groundcover News vendor Kevin works in Silvio's kitchen in Ann Arbor – one of his three jobs alongside selling the street paper. Photo: Susan Beckett

One of the vendors I spoke with started selling in 2013. She asked that I keep her name anonymous.

“Much of it is different from when I first started. Back then there was no rhyme or reason. I would get up and stand in different corners,” she said.

“Now I sell in [the same place] most days. I sell [there] from about 8-9.30am and then I move further into town. And then I go back to sell in the evenings.”

As a writer and musician, the vendor added that being an independent contractor gives her time to work on other creative projects.

“I’m trying to put out a rap album but every day I try to get out and sell. I sometimes don’t when it’s raining; [instead] I do office work. I write and try to get my eBay business up,” she said.

Participating in workshops with Joe Woods, another experienced vendor who is also Groundcover’s sales coordinator, has helped improve her sales techniques over time.

“Since I’ve worked with Joe, my approach is different. My sales grew dramatically when I started asking [direct questions]. I might say different things: have you gotten the paper yet? Do you know about Groundcover? May I ask you a question?”

Unfortunately, not everybody responds politely to these questions, said the vendor.

“Most people ignore me. A lot of people say ‘No, thank you.’ A few people imply that I’m not actually working. For the most part, the response is pretty nice but it’s bad when people ignore me.”

“We’re pretty much a family. We have bonds here.”

The impoliteness may partly result from ignorance and society’s lack of understanding of homelessness, she added.

“I think people have the wrong perception of people who are homeless. There needs to be a paradigm shift. We’re really behind in understanding the issues of homelessness in society. There is also blatant stereotyping – that people who are homeless are lazy and that we’re not victims. We are victims and people need to recognise that.”

One of the best ways to understand homelessness is by getting involved with Groundcover.

“For vendors, Groundcover is a tremendous opportunity to become your own person. It’s a lot of work but if you’re willing to put in the work and the discipline it can be the means to an end. It’s a way to get immediate income,” she said.

“For volunteers, it’s a way to learn first-hand about homelessness so you can begin to realise some of the stereotypes that exist.”

When asked about the relationships she has formed as a result of Groundcover, she replied: “We’re pretty much a family. We have bonds here. It hasn’t come easy. We’ve lost people. We lost someone recently, she just passed this year. And she was part of our family.”

Kevin Spangler joined the Groundcover family two months ago.  He sells and writes for the street paper between his three other jobs. Kevin washes dishes at Mezzevino, a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor four days a week. He also works at Silvio’s Organic Ristorante and Pizzeria three days a week. When he has time in the day, he does construction work for a client who is remodelling a house.

Most days for Kevin begin at 5 or 6am at the shelter where he sleeps. Kevin’s morning routine consists of breathing exercises, prayer and watching motivational videos on YouTube.

On a “Groundcover day,” Kevin heads over to the farmers’ market between 7 – 8am to sell. He does what he can to stay warm: sometimes push-ups, lunges and squats.

Groundcover News vendor Kevin washes rapini in Silvio's kitchen – one of his many jobs alongside selling the street paper. Photo: Susan Beckett

“It’s pretty slow for the first few hours. For the first hour I go around and scope out the best vegetables of the venue. Sometimes you get good deals if you wait until the very end,” Kevin said.

Kevin usually sells newspapers until around 2pm or until he runs out of papers. He says he works hard to provide for the baby that he and his girlfriend Cynthia had recently. Cynthia is also a Groundcover vendor who Kevin met while working as a marketer for Liberty Tax. Kevin played the role of Uncle Sam, while Cynthia was Lady Liberty.

As for Groundcover, “I decided to get into it because I have sold things in the past and I thought this was a great avenue for me. The writing part was an accident,” Kevin said. He went on to suggest volunteer opportunities. “Bringing in food for the vendors or putting advertisements in the newspaper for your local business can go a long way.”

Kevin has other goals besides providing for his child. For one, he aims to become an impactful motivational speaker. Kevin thinks that too many people think they’re not good enough. He believes that if people were more confident in their abilities, they would make better decisions and succeed more often.

He lives by “kaizen,” a Japanese word that means constant and never-ending improvement. Kevin is planning to enrol in Washtenaw Community College, and hopes to study psychology at the University of Michigan in order to help people change themselves for the better.

Street papers like Groundcover support thousands of hard-working vendors around the world. Behind every street paper you buy is a whole community of individuals with fascinating life stories, and hearts full of desires and dreams. Next time you purchase one, try to learn something new about your vendor. They might surprise you.