#VendorWeek 2019: “Selling the paper is often harder than it looks”

By Tim Harris, Founding Director of Real Change

During #VendorWeek (4-10 February 2019), I joined some of Real Change’s better known friends for the ‘Real Change Day of Heroes’, where local celebrities paired up with vendors for two hours to sell our paper and bring attention to the hard working people who do this every day.

The Day of Heroes also highlights the International Network of Street Papers, the global organization of more than one hundred papers like Real Change across 35 countries. During #VendorWeek, papers all over the world participate in the event.

I ran into Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard as he was getting reacquainted with Darrell Wrenn. Two big personalities reunited under one Pioneer Square pergola. Darrell is the top-selling vendor who interviewed Stone for the Home Shows last summer.

Stone was unconvincingly incognito, sporting a black stocking cap and some very Wayne’s World dark glasses with blue masking tape wound around the bridge.

His idea for the day was to make things interesting for the fans with a ‘Where’s Stone’ contest, with clues on social media about his selling location. It worked. At 9.30am, we got a call from a woman in Vancouver, British Columbia. She asked if we thought there was time to drive down.

I don’t know if she ever showed, but Stone and Darrell sold 115 papers between them in two hours. Thanks to the Pearl Jam buzz, #VendorWeek trended on Twitter in Seattle all day.

My own sales were less spectacular. During a peripatetic hour and a half paired with vendor Michael Dotts, we sold two papers. I bought one of those myself. On Venmo. For $2 on Venmo plus a big tip to make it $25.

As we headed to our assigned spot, I asked Michael how he sells. “I just say, ‘Help the homeless!’” he told me. “That’s it?” Pretty much, he said. Or “Real Change!”

Michael has sold Real Change in the same location for eight years, and usually makes what he needs for the day in three or four hours. His customers know him, so he doesn’t need a big pitch. The relationships and the tips make it all work.

Founding Director of Real Change Tim Harris sold copies of the Seattle street paper during #VendorWeek 2019 while being paired with veteran vendor Michael Dotts. (Credit: Jeff Few)

We arrived at Fourth and Virginia. Showtime. I looked at the people walking by in the cold and hollered, “Reeeel Chaaange! Get it here! New issue!”

Twenty minutes went by without a bite. Michael leaned back against the building and watched as I vainly tried to sell a paper. The Venn diagram of people walking by and people interested in Real Change barely intersected. As people neared, their intense interest in their phones proportionately increased.

We decided to go rogue and find another location. As we headed toward Westlake Park, all the good spots were already occupied.

I started to feel a little frantic. We walked by City Attorney Pete Holmes, who looked like he was having the time of his life. “How’s it going?” he asked, “I’m on my second batch of papers!”

A block later we ran into former Seattle mayoral candidate Cary Moon. She too was rocking it. Her stack of Real Change papers had dwindled to one. I began to feel jealous.

Michael and I continued our search. We settled for a corner near Eighth and Pine that wasn’t much better than where we began.

I made eye contact with anything that moved. I smiled like a damn maniac and waved my papers like a flag. “Reeeel Change. Seattle’s best paper right here! Get ‘em before they’re gone!”

Finally, as I locked eyes with a man 10 yards away, he pulled cash from his pocket. Waves of gratitude washed over me as I gave him a paper and handed the $2 to Michael.

Two minutes later, I saw him come back.

He pointed at his paper. “Are you this guy?” he asked, pointing to the “Where’s Waldo” style drawing of Stone on the cover.

“Nope, I’m this guy.” I pointed to my Director’s Corner photo on page two. “Whoa! You started this! That’s amazing!” He seemed genuinely floored to meet me. I humbly thanked him and he went on his way.

For the first time that day, I felt something like a celebrity. Not an iconic rock star or a mayoral candidate, but like each and every one of our vendors, someone worth noticing.

Tim Harris is the Founding Director of Seattle street paper Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston.

Read more coverage of #VendorWeek 2019 here.