One Roman who did not go on holiday this year was Roberta. She and her husband never go on holiday. Roberta explained that they always spend the summer in Rome because the stress of clearing the decks to leave, and then getting them ship-shape on return, had simply become unbearable. Roberta manages one of Lazios 2,847 newspaper kiosks.
I have no idea how the others do it, but if we go away to relax, the benefit is burnt away in a day when we come back. Whoosh!
How come? Well for one thing, if you go off and send your customers to other newsstands, there are always mistakes. The distributors send the wrong magazine to the wrong kiosk, addressed to the wrong person, or the right magazine but the wrong newspaper or the wrong book. Then after the holidays its one argument after another because they all blame you. Or the customers ask you to keep things for them, but youre not there to keep them!
Roberta is small, bright and vivacious, always ready with some cheery remark, but talking of such things, her lively face darkens.
By far the worst is that your suppliers simply dont suspend deliveries during the holidays as youd expect, but keep on sending you the stuff all the same. And not only do you have to pay them about 80 per cent of the purchase price in advance, but when you get back after a fortnight, youve 20-25 enormous cartons of merchandise waiting for you that youre supposed to unpack and sell off. And where do you put it all, tell me?
She gestured around the wooden kiosk a Turkish-bath in summer bursting, she reckoned, with 1,000-1,500 titles on display; under a law passed in 2001, Roberta is obliged to put on sale everything the myriad of publishers/suppliers press on her, ranging from the dailies, each with their own distributor, to outdated cassettes on world war one and make-it-yourself kits.
Then Roberta smiled and invited me inside to read, in a jealously-kept issue of the kiosk-keepers union magazine, a speech made by her daughter Maddalena before a big kiosk workers union congress in Rome: We are the face of the market. We are the ones who blush when, instead of the opera DVD the clients asked for, they send us a porn movie. The distribution system is archaic, obsolete, feudal...everybody else is computerised. Not us. Others order things with a click of a mouse. Not us. We still have pens. At the end of a days work, Ive got writers cramp! And yet, how we stand in awe of the distributor. What daily fears we have.
Oh, there was so much applause for her, Roberta proudly recalled.
A further issue arises here, which appears to leave the customers suffering. Why is it that kiosk people seem to monopolise the retail system? Why in Italy are you not able to buy a paper at the grocers or chemists as people do in Britain? Gianfranco Silenzi, the genial secretary general of the newsvendors union, SINAGI (sindacato nazionale giornalai dItalia), replied: They tried it once but it didnt work. After a law was passed in 1999, a two-year experiment began in selling newspapers etc. in tobacconists, petrol stations, bookshops and supermarkets. But in the end, publishers found that the new outlets were bringing in only two per cent of their revenue and so called it off.
Why was there so little response?
Well, you dont fill up your car every day; you dont buy a book each day, and if you are like me, youll take the missus to the supermarket and while she shops, you read every paper there is and dont buy one. Very Italian! Now its all up to the regional governments, and Lazio decided who could sell what in January this year.
Anyway people are reading less and less. Black on white is out. Thats why were pleased with the relatively new newspaper-and-book formula. The edicolanti, the newsstand owners, still only get their usual 18 per cent profit, but the extra books have bumped up their volume of business a lot.
We needed it, you know, with the narrow profit margins, on top of costs 50,000-70,000 for the newsstand itself and 1,500-3,000 a year for public premises tax, income tax
But why is it that in areas outside the historic centre of Rome, you often have to hike 10 km to catch even a whiff of a paper, especially on Sundays, above all in summer?
Thats Rome for you. There are some 40,000 kiosks in Italy. Thats about one per 1,000 people. In Rome its one to 1,700. Once there were rules as to who was to close when. Thats now gone out of the window.
Thats what were fighting for responsible distribution, fair rules on all sides, economic recovery. In the meantime, it seems, anarchy is to continue.