By Birgit Müller, Hinz&Kunzt
He’s standing here again, if only to have his photo taken. It’s been more than two months – the end of May – since Thomas, 43, was last here, at his pitch outside the Edeka supermarket in Harkortstrasse in Altona, Hambrug. He feels a bit uneasy. Will his customers even recognise him when he stands here with the new issue of Hinz&Kunzt? Because of the coronavirus, the street paper vendor will look a bit different to how he used to. Sales manager Christian Hagen has given him a face mask and a kind of visor. He’ll need the mask when he enters the shop, and the visor will protect him when he’s selling his magazines at his pitch outside.
But will his pitch still be the same? That’s something he wants to ask today. “Where I used to stand, right at the entrance, probably won’t work anymore,” says Thomas. “I don’t want to be in anyone’s way.”
Thomas is one of about 600 Hinz&Kunzt vendors who returned to their usual pitches on 27 May. And Thomas certainly wasn’t the only one who was a little apprehensive.
“Hinz&Kunzt makes me realise why I need to get up in the morning.”
Fortunately, he and many other vendors will receive support. Benjamin Hirche, 39, will be advising Thomas about the pitch. Hirche believes that Thomas will be able to return to his old pitch. “The security guards have been standing there over the past few weeks,” he says. “If you put yourself there, everyone else will just have to go around you – there’s enough space!”
It’s clear that the manager of the Edeka supermarket is happy to see Thomas back. They haven’t known each other for long: Hirche only opened his store in October 2019 and Thomas started in December. “But,” says the retailer, “wherever I’ve sold groceries – I’ve always worked with Hinz&Kunzt. That’s why it’s completely normal for me to have someone standing just outside the door earning a living selling the magazine. It’s part of the whole thing.”
It could even be a real win-win: “If you have people like Thomas, it helps with customer loyalty,” says Hirche. “His customers are loyal to him, so they keep coming back to see him here, and they often then come into the shop – and vice versa.”
Thomas is visibly relieved that he has got off to such a good start with his store manager. The last few months have not been easy for him. The coronavirus has hit him hard. Because, like most Hinz&Kunzt vendors, he belongs to the high-risk group. He battled drug addiction for years. Now he uses tablets instead. “It means I don’t feel the need to take drugs anymore,” he explains. “And, because of the tablets, I don’t get any pain either.” “All” he does is smoke weed. That’s real progress for him. “I’m on the right track,” he says.
Thomas says contact with his customers is helping him. “It makes me realise why I need to get up in the morning.” Until the coronavirus came along. He began to get anxious, about himself and other people. He hardly ever went to his pitch. But it was a big blow to him when he heard that Hinz&Kunzt was closing temporarily and that the magazines weren’t on sale anymore.
“I’m not saying my world collapsed, but I thought I would have to start begging again. And there’s absolutely no way at all I wanted that to happen.”
“I’m not saying my world collapsed, but… I thought I would have to start begging again”, says Thomas. “And there’s absolutely no way at all I wanted that to happen.”
Fortunately, Hinz&Kunzt was able to pay its vendors subsistence support. But this was an unknown and it wasn’t clear that it was going to be possible at the beginning of lockdown.
The people of Hamburg came through though: they donated so much to the street paper’s coronavirus fund that it was able to give Thomas and the other vendors 490 Euros in total in April and May. But although he urgently needed the financial support: “It wasn’t just about the money. I missed all the people and the conversations with them,” says Thomas.
The Hinz&Kunzt sales team has been working on more protective measures so that nobody has to worry about catching the virus themselves or infecting other people. As well as masks and visors, the vendors have been provided with disinfectant, and with magazine holders so that the customers can take the magazine themselves. The watchword is: contactless sales.
Thomas has now tested the mask and visor. “It does make me feel safer,” he says. So now he’s ready for the big day, the first day back selling after lockdown. Thomas is well equipped. And supermarket manager Hirche is also sure: his customers have been waiting for Thomas for a long time. “They’ve been asking after him a lot the last few weeks.”
Translated from German by Sean Morris