“People raise pigs on roofs,” offered Tony Kowalski, as just one example of the obscure knowledge one could glean from thumbing through the periodicals of News Haven. “Oh yeah, they do all kinds of stuff down there in the city.”
Kowalski has been the processor of News Haven’s inventory for the past 15 years, a tenure that will end in a few short weeks with the neighborhood staple’s closing. A Panera Bread will replace it. To some Yalies, such as myself, News Haven seems at first glance to be a standard convenience store. But to most of its patrons, the shop is irreplaceable. This past Thursday, Kowalski showed me around and helped guide my observation of the respected establishment.
The store is pleasantly plain: white walls, with section signs the only decorations, a few drink refrigerators, a convenience counter, and stacks on stacks on stacks of magazines and newspapers. The front of the store serves as a quick pit stop for most — a place one can pick up Gatorade, snacks, single doses of Tylenol, Emergen-C and other defenses against the freshman plague. The rest of the store, however, is unlike any for literally miles around.
“At one time, we had over four thousand titles,” Kolwalski told me. “Recently, we’ve got about 2500, maybe close to 3000. It depends on the supplier.” The shop’s inventory is so vast that most other news shops struggle to compete. After News Haven closes there will be virtually no place for magazine-lovers and media addicts in the greater New Haven area to purchase their beloved publications. Among the scores of volumes displayed on News Haven’s shelves were such titles as “Edible Brooklyn,” the heading that prompted Kowalski’s tidbit on urban pig farming, “Kung fu,” “Homeopathy Today,” “Equestrian Quarterly,” “Women and Guns: The World’s First Firearms Publication for Women,” “Playgirl,” “Modern Drunkard” (“Standing up for your right to get falling down drunk since 1996.”) and “Oggi,” which is something akin to the Italian version of “Us Weekly.”
Of course, News Haven carries every standard publication a New Havenite could ever want, but it is these special issues, the ones that News Haven staff would describe as “shockingly popular,” that will be missed most dearly from the long-standing institution. Kowalski added, “I tell our customers that if you want any of this anymore you have to get on the train. Out of Town News up in Boston, in Cambridge Square. There used to be a place in Stratford, but now you have to go to New York.” Of course, the increasing scarcity of newsstands and stores like News Haven may not be troubling to some. Personally, I had never felt shortchanged for my lack of access to Russian gossip media or a professional cartography digest. I thought I had every piece of information I could want at my fingertips with my smart phone. I didn’t quite understand what it was about these magazines that was causing people to feel such loss. Then again, no spontaneous Googling would necessarily uncover the titles I encountered while browsing the aisles.
Why, then, don’t these news lovers turn to the Internet, as more and more people seem to be doing? I asked Kowalski if he would feel withdrawal from any print publications in the way he believed most might. “Of course,” he replied, “There’s tons of them. The Spectator, The Nation, The Guardian. I like the political publications. The Economist, New York, The New Yorker. You know, Vanity Fair has some great articles. It’s just good reading. When you go online you can get part of a story or a highlight or something. But to hold it in your hand and to have 30 pages there to soak up is just a whole different experience.” For Kowalski and his customers, magazine reading is a ritual. The loss of News Haven means for some the loss of bass fishing tips over lunch or a dog lover’s weekly on the Monday commute to work.
Unfortunately, the story of what’s happening to News Haven is an all too familiar narrative: corporate chains driving the well-loved local corner store out of business. It’s the plot of “You’ve Got Mail,” “Dodgeball,” “Empire Records,” “Barbershop,” “Barbershop 2” and even “Good Burger.” News Haven has been around for 30 years, and, unlike in the movies, it will close its doors in two weeks. Despite the recent pop-ups of Shake Shack, Chipotle and now Panera Bread, many New Havenites insist there is a healthy advocacy for local businesses. Even those at News Haven would agree that the Elm City still has large support for the little guy.
Kowalski, a resident of New Haven since 1967, commented that his city is still “surprisingly parochial. People here have allegiance to small business. Some people just take umbrage at places like that ruining the local flavor.” The owner of News Haven, Navin Jani, reported such customer loyalty when he told the News that his store has about 100 regular customers everyday. When I visited the shop, allegiance to News Haven was constantly in evidence.
Even during my short time at the store, I could see the wide range of dedicated patronage that News Haven receives. The first to come in after I arrived was a father and his daughter. They lingered a moment, before finally landing on the right coloring and puzzle books. Next, a power-walking Yale student bought an energy drink. The following items purchased ran: Marlboro Reds, Pretzel M&Ms, Twizzlers, vitamin water, postcards, and, of course, the main event: magazines. One customer looking for the latest “duPont Registry” was wearing a Harlem Globetrotters hat.
Alex Howard or “Vator,” as he was known on the Globetrotters (a performative basketball team with their own animated series) serendipitously illustrated just how widely appealing the atmosphere of News Haven can be. Kowalski, who incidentally knew a player on the Washington Generals, the team the Globetrotters would routinely pay to humiliate on the court, approached this man. The two had a brief, amiable exchange. But it was the final patron of News Haven I encountered that demonstrated just how important the store was to the neighborhood at large.
This last customer to cross the doorway had not yet heard of his news shop’s closing. He was looking for the latest issue of Classic Cars, his favorite British monthly. He couldn’t find the magazine in its usual spot in the back left corner of the store, top shelf.
“I’ll look for it, but we might be out,” Kowalski replied to the man’s inquiry.
“Well, how frequently do you restock your inventory?”
“I’m sorry to say but the shop’s actually closing down in two weeks.”
Kowalski said that the shock and disappointment visible on the man’s face was not an uncommon response to the news. “Lots of people are very upset.”
“This was an important place” the customer answered softly.
“Sure, in the last couple of weeks we’ve had a lot of people crying in here. You know, you get used to certain publications, and you cannot get them anywhere else, and I know that, and our customers tell us that,” Kowalski said. He and his coworker behind the register tried to convey to me how engrained in the lives of their customers these publications could become. Most of News Haven’s business consists of New Haven area regulars, including some Yale faculty and staff. Kowalski explained that for the regulars that request it, there is a reserve service. For them, these articles, the acclaimed and the unknown, become a routine part of life — brushing your teeth, your morning coffee. “That’s what’s going to be missed,” Kowalski said.