New Yorkers love to read the news, and there are hundreds of mainstream and specialized newspapers to satisfy their needs. But the men and women behind the counters at the thousands of city newsstands and magazine stores are not nearly as diverse. These days, most New York news dealers are South Asian immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Enterprising émigrés from the region can also be seen running restaurants and other small businesses throughout the Big Apple. But the experience of Mombai-born Mohammed Khali is typical of the many South Asian immigrants who sell newspapers and magazines. Despite his old-fashioned smock and the calm, easygoing manner that many associate with India, Mr. Khali has been a New York newsagent for 27 years. He says most of the city’s newsstands are run by South Asians “because they get the jobs right away and we newsagents always need help.” Mr. Khali adds that although “there are a lot of people who are engineers and doctors and most of them are very well educated people, it’s the easiest work that they can find.”
Still, his own family is perplexed that he has not left the newsstand business to become a professional. “Mostly all my family is right here,” says Mr. Khali, “in Atlanta, Boston, California, Arizona [and] Detroit. They are engineers and everything. And I am the only [one] playing around here in the newsstand. They wonder why. I tell them I really enjoy it!”
Mr. Khali especially enjoys helping out his fellow Indians by hiring them and training them on the job so that they can eventually start their own businesses. While some of his protégés have been family members, most began as strangers. “And they went back to Texas or California,” he says, “and they opened their own convenience stores with newsstands and everything and they are very happy. And they always call me and thank me.”
New York’s traditional wood-frame newsstands can be hot and cramped in the summer and cold and cramped in the winter. According to a dealer who calls himself Cooper, those conditions help explain why it’s mostly South Asians who work inside them. “Nobody else likes to work the way we do,” says Cooper, an immigrant from India who took a job at a Broadway kiosk several years ago. “We get about the minimum wage and we work 13 to 14 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. I don’t think any American would like to do that work. Also, we are very honest and we are very hard working.”
Cooper agrees that Indians tend to gravitate toward the news sellers business because, being well educated, they like the literary quality of the merchandise. “Maybe a little bit yes,” he says. “I am a civil engineer myself. I am 64 years old, so I cannot do that work right now. We are not used to this type of work in India. In the beginning it becomes very difficult for us to adjust. But I have been here for six or seven years and I am quite accustomed to it now.” One familiar part of New York for Cooper is its hyper-urban quality. “I am from Bombay in India,” he says. “We also have our different religions and different castes [and] creeds. And the same is [true] here. We have the black people, the Latinos. It’s nice to mingle with everybody here.”
Not all of the dealers are quite as experienced in the ways of New York. Rajeena Patel emigrated only recently from his village in Gujarat State in western India. For him, adjusting to city life, the English language and Western ways has been hard. “Good life in India, but no money,” he says. “Here is always money, but no life.” Mr. Patel notes that gender roles are unfamiliar. “In India, [the] woman is always home, [and has] no job,” he says. “And here, I go home, [and] my wife is going to [her] job.”
Many Indian villagers have become successes in America, despite their limited English. An immigrant named Samir was nearly indigent when he arrived in America in 1995 to work for another Indian new seller. Today, he has managed to acquire his own modest newsstand. “I got my green card,” he says, “and my daughter and my wife and my son-in-law, everybody come here, and I [am] surviving. It’s a very nice country. I very, very [much] love [the] U-S-A.”
As more and more South Asian immigrants find success selling newspapers and enter the middle class, their children become professionals, leaving a niche for new waves of immigrants to take the place they currently occupy in New York’s ethnic mosaic.