Who said that print is dead? A small newsstand in the West Village, New York City, continues to gather, like a temple, paper lovers – a species believed to be on the brink of extinction. Known in the neighborhood precisely as the “mecca of magazines”, Casa Magazines can hardly contain more than 3,000 publications in its approximately 200 square feet of space which, as a result, occupy every corner of the store, including the floor.
Guiding the customers through the maze of titles is Syed Khalid Wasim, or Ali, as friends call him. Ali has been working at the newsstand for more than 19 years and is known by long-term residents as the “guardian of the West Village”. Like many shopkeepers in the neighborhood, Ali is an immigrant. Of Pakistani origin, he arrived in the United States at age sixteen and immediately fell in love with New York City. Here, he met Mohammed, another immigrant of Indian origin, co-owner and manager of the newsstand since 1995. The newsstand itself has been in business for 75 years, but before Mohammed took over it was never very successful. Today, however, sales are such that he has been dubbed by the New York Times as “the last king of print”. A prestigious title, given that the crisis of print media keeps on decimating newsstands in the city, reducing them to about 300 in 2015, as opposed to 1,500 in the 1950s.
So what is the secret of his success? First of all, the neighborhood. The West Village offers proximity to many fashion houses – avid consumers of magazines – along with a committed and well-read audience. Once home to the underpaid bohemian artists, today it remains a creative hub populated by many writers, photographers, advertisers, actors and architects, who can actually afford – and are willing – to spend as much as 20 dollars for a single magazine. What unites them is the love of print, which they don’t only buy, but also celebrate, support and promote on social media using the hashtag “long live print”.
But proximity alone cannot explain all of Casa’ success. The newsstand owes the loyalty of the public to its wide and diverse selection of titles – including the ones in foreign languages - that have truly made it the home of all magazines. Having established itself as a real institution in the printing industry over time, Casa has now among its frequent visitors names such as Graydon Carter, former editor of Vanity Fair and André Leon Talley, former editor of Vogue, and celebrities from the realms of fashion, literature and cinema, such as world-known author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, 2000) and actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Julianne Moore.
Many are regularly captured on camera while visiting Ali, happy to pose with their magazines to promote the newsstand and the perks of print, in what at times resembles a WWF movement for the preservation of paper. This remarkable turnout of celebrities has steadily improved the newsstand’s visibility on social media, after a friend named Felicitas – nicknamed ‘Happy’- took over Casa’s accounts in 2017.
The newsstand is a crucial component of the residents’ routine. Polly, who has lived in the West Village for more than six years, goes there every Saturday, right after having breakfast at the diner next door (La Bonbonnière, another veteran of that street). For her, it is part of a ritual and, although she can order the same magazines online at a lower price, she prefers going to Casa to greet Ali and have a chat with the neighbors, exchanging with them ideas and business cards. Like Polly, many customers keep coming back not just for the numerous titles, but for the particular atmosphere and sense of belonging they find once they walk in. Scenes similar to the ones playing out in family sitcoms unfold before the newcomers’ eyes as soon as they cross the threshold: celebrities come down from their pedestal to hug Ali and tell him about their day and their kids, whom he watched grow up; friendly bus drivers pay him a visit during their lunch break to crack some jokes, while tourists take pictures; regular clients leave their dogs or children in the store while they continue their errands around the neighborhood. Thanks to his exuberant and friendly personality, Ali gladly plays the role of parent, confidant and dog sitter. “Life is not all about money and business”, he explains solemnly, “that’s why I treat all my customers like family”.
Others also come to him looking for a job. Happy was one of them. When she first arrived from the Philippines in 2010, she found in Ali and Mohammed a real support group, at a time when she didn’t know anyone. “Unlike other newsstands”, she says, “when you shop at Casa it’s not just a transaction, they really want to know how you are doing”. She tells me, for example, how they’ve helped a friend of hers prepare an interview for the Wall Street Journal by consistently giving him free copies of the newspaper, which later hired him.
The newsstand soon turns into a small stage, featuring the entire cast of the West Village. Characters of all kinds and nationalities, as only NYC makes them, come and go, in a crescendo of laughter, teasing and twists, that almost make you forget why you entered in the first place. Between one joke and another, neighborly relations grow stronger, thus contributing to the smooth running of the Big Apple. As the famous American writer E.B. White noted in 1948, when he described New York City as “a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units.”
It is therefore not surprising that, during the months of lockdown resulting from COVID-19, the newsstand received countless donations and great proofs of solidarity. “I’ve been designing, directing art and launching magazines for 17 years”, says Matt Willey, the Art Director of the New York Times Magazine. “Casa always had everything I’ve ever worked on, always supporting the printing industry.” Matt decided it was his turn to support them when he participated in Merch Aid, an initiative that helps small businesses recover from the pandemic through the selling of exclusive products designed by various artists (the T-shirt he dedicated to Casa Magazines immediately sold out).
As for Ali and Mohammed, coronavirus-related restrictions have aggravated the economic situation of many historic West Village shopkeepers, which was already precarious due to the notorious soaring rents. This has awakened old fears among local residents, who once again worry about the identity of their neighborhood, in constant transformation since the 90s, years in which big fashion chains (and not only) began replacing the typical bodegas. A phenomenon unfortunately well-known to longtime New Yorkers, and famously portrayed by acclaimed director Norah Ephron in her iconic movie “You’ve got mail” (1998). “So much of New York is changing; the small stores and diners and bodegas that make a neighborhood interesting, give it character, are being forced out”, explains Matt, “I want to believe that places like Casa can survive”. Supporters of the newsstand are therefore not only fighting for the survival of print, but for the survival of their neighborhood as well. Needless to say, when Casa reopened its doors, the two newsagents were celebrated with the same enthusiasm as classmates reuniting after summer break. Despite some persistent disruption in the supply chain, which occasionally forces Ali to apologize to customers for not having a title – something rather unfamiliar to him since he always had them all – the ‘guardian of the West Village’ doesn’t lose hope, encouraged by the accelerated reopening of the city.
New York City is not just the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge or the bright spire of the Chrysler Building, which every night, like the North Star, serves as a compass among Manhattan’s skyscrapers. What makes this city truly unique are the more common places, the ones that often go unnoticed to the visitor’s eye, but that are in fact the lifeblood of the neighborhood to which they belong. So, next time you walk through the streets of the ‘city that never sleeps’ – COVID-19 permitting – I suggest you make a stop at this small yet charming newsstand, to rediscover the New York of yesteryear, which here is still the one of today and, with a bit of luck, that of tomorrow. Don’t worry if you find yourself perusing magazines elbow-to-elbow with one of your idols; Ali will crack a joke and you’ll feel right at home.