“This place is so small you have to go outside to change your mind.”

                         American Author, Nelson DeMille

Of course, this quote was written by a native New Yorker. 

With toll collectors losing their booths to EZ Pass and MTA kiosks made redundant by the now (almost) obsolete MetroCard vending machines, newsstands are one of the few remaining bastions for the agoraphobic. It is 20 degrees outside this Gensler-designed NYC newsstand, and with the gate down and a single fluorescent tube lamp, the three of us, tightly packed, keep our coats zipped and gloves on while maintaining a cheerful demeanor amidst a seemingly dire scenario. Megan and I are in close quarters with Sadik Topia, the immigrant father of two, who has held down the northwest corner of West 79th Street and Broadway opposite the First Baptist Church, for the past twenty-three years. 

His concern, expertly detailed by The West Side Spirit (linked), shares his experience in trying to ameliorate an avalanche of fines, a first $26,800 violation, then a $58,400 penalty and another $8,000 which today total a crushing $93,200 leveraged against the newsstand he manages under an agreement with licensee Marilyn Kaufman. As a newspaper salesman, he can’t open his gate to operate and sell newspapers without the fines cleared, but he can’t afford the $93,200 bill if he has no income, all for a newsstand that was shuttered in November and is still accruing rent. For now, he sells newspapers outside to serve the community and especially for his longtime customers, but it is hardly enough to cover his costs.  

First and foremost, he admits he made a mistake. Topia’s stock included a phone charger alongside a litany of other wares, which must be less than $10 by City law. While this cost ceiling has not changed in years, and with the Sunday edition of the New York Times hovering at $6, this significantly limits his profit potential. The one exception to the rule is magazines that cost more than $10, but one of Sadik’s mistakes was selling a $30 phone charger. A second “mistake” (a result of the pandemic) was the expiration of a permit to sell e-cigarettes; for him, this was Juul cartridges. The latter error, manifested in less than two weeks of sales without an active permit, was based on a misunderstanding and resulted in over 60% of the fine as the City’s hearing officer did not levy just $100/day for his thirteen days of violation but $100/day for each day since the initial permit lapsed. He was asked to prove he wasn’t selling beyond the thirteen days but couldn’t satisfy the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection on appeal. “They do inspections throughout the year, and this is the first time they found anything,” and it is not as if there is an archive of security footage, nor does Topia need such surveillance.  As it is, if people come and bother him for a drink or candy, he just surrenders it: “They can have it…just make them happy.”  Besides, who would need an advanced system when everything is sold at such a slim margin? The width of the kiosk is small enough to monitor independently. 

Shuttered NewsstandDespite hiring a lawyer, the fines remained. Take basic rent, then add $1,076 a year for a permit to sell newspapers and another $500 or so for vape cartridges and cigarettes, and you’ve cut deeply into already tight margins. Years ago, he would sell cigarettes, but they are now more than $10 a pack; then he sold menthols, and City legislation cut back on those too. City agencies have provided an option instead of one lump sum payment. Topia would have to pay around $40,000 upfront and then agree to a yet-to-be-determined 1 ½ – 2-year repayment plan for the interest-accruing remainder for him to lift the gate and reopen.  Even in that instance, he cannot sell flavored vapes, just the clear ones, but getting back into business is still his goal. 

At nearly 60 years old, Topia and his wife are grateful to have been able to raise a registered (qualified) nurse and a CPA and support a family through the newsstand. Still, he admits that business is down 60% since the pandemic: “It changed everything…subscriptions, home delivery, the internet, everything is ordered, people stay home more.”

That hasn’t stopped Topia. Adhering to the ‘postman’s motto’ of “neither rain, nor snow nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds,” he has deemed his station a public service and, up until November, maintained a 7 am-7 pm shift before returning to his home in the Bronx.  With tight quarters and tight margins, hiring staff is out of the question.  But he still enjoys offering neighbors whatever they need…for under $10.  Inside his kiosk is a Mary Poppins bag of wares: drinks, candy, ponchos, condoms, bandages, heel savers, basic analgesics, lip balm, masks…and stacks and stacks of newspapers as insulation from the cold. Seemingly everything a New Yorker on the go may need—even though the City seems to be on the go less and less. 

Never failing in his smile throughout our meeting, Topia reiterates that he is proud of his family and to be able to send money “to help my mom in India and to get to visit sometimes.”  Ever hopeful despite these conditions, he is steadfast that “immigrants always work very hard to make it here, and I try to help everybody.” He admits that there should be oversight, as “too much freedom is no good for anybody.” From his multi-layered standpoint, he says, “Let me pay something to make it fair to reopen…so I can then afford to pay a fair fine.”  In response, Council Member Gale Brewer and her staff have tried to help—working with NYC Oath (Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings) and the NYC Office of Consumer Affairs was unfruitful, so she has elevated the issue to the Mayor’s office “if they would just reduce the costs, the number is just outrageous,” but she warns “we all know these things take time.”  While Topia awaits word from the Mayor’s office, you can offer support by buying newspapers from Sadik Topia outside the First Baptist Church and checking back on this post. If the fines can’t be lowered, the community will launch a GoFundMe to support Topia because the last thing the Upper West Side needs is another vacant newsstand.  UPDATE, the GoFundMe is live.  You can contribute HERE

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