Stand and deliver

Vendors who returned to their pitches recently, with full PPE and contactless payment systems, were both nervous and excited

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It’s 8.30 on Monday morning and in the Leeds Big Issue North office the first magazine delivery in nearly three months has just arrived. A few months ago the Monday morning magazine delivery was a frenetic time, with a small team of vendors on hand to help unload the van, but today it’s up to the two staff present in the office to sort it. Half an hour later, the door buzzer goes and the first vendor arrives for his pre-arranged appointment.

There’s little in the way of fanfare as Ian, who sells the magazine over in Brighouse, comes into the office. He is keen to get sorted, buy his magazines and get back on the pitch he’s been away from for weeks. He’s presented with a bag that contains all manner of things, including PPE to wear on pitch and a card machine that he takes out and turns over in his hands.

“How’s this work, then?” he asks. He’s told it’s easy to use and given a set of instructions to follow.

“It’s been a horrible few months,” says Ian, who has been surviving on money left to him by his late father. For him, more than money worries, it’s the isolation that’s been tough since the high streets were cleared and lockdown began.

“I live all by myself in a flat so I haven’t really had anyone to talk to,” he says. “It will be good to be back on my pitch instead of indoors, staring at the four walls.”

He looks out of the office window before heading out. “It’s supposed to throw it down today,” he sighs, noting how bad weather is never great for sales anyway. And then he heads off to get his bus.

Wednesday lunchtime and despite news stories of queues to get into the newly reopened shops on Monday, Manchester city centre is now fairly quiet again. On the walkway curving down from the entrance to Piccadilly station Stefan waits with the magazine held out, sporting a long beard that he’s been cultivating during the lockdown, now tied into a sort of reverse pony tail at the front.

He is in good spirits. “It’s been a long compulsory holiday,” he laughs, but the man who is known for running marathons and who once walked nearly 3000 kilometres from Romania to Egypt has been keeping himself busy staying fit during the lockdown. The 59 year old has now formulated a new plan: to climb Everest when he turns 100.

“Maybe I will die on the mountainside, but my body will be preserved in the snow and in a thousand years they will find me and revive me,” he laughs. He’s had a lot of time to think about this plan.

It’s been quiet on his pitch since he started selling on Monday, he reports. Normally he’d expect to sell at least 10 magazines a day, but so far he’s not even sold that many in three. Still, he’s hopeful things will pick up nearer the weekend.

“It’s been very difficult,” he says. Coping during the lockdown meant living off the money he’d saved. That lasted for about two months and then he had to borrow from a friend, who he now has to pay back. He’s also had help from the Big Issue North vendor hardship fund, set up in the wake of the pandemic, which has helped him pay some bills and get some food.

He holds out his card machine but reports that so far no one has shown an interest in paying with contactless. “Maybe people don’t want to get their cards out in public,” he says. “And I am happy to take cash or card. The choice is the customer’s.”

Elsewhere in the city, a former vendor who hasn’t yet started selling the magazine again is sitting near his old pitch, still wearing his bib but without any magazines to sell. Big Issue North staff know that during the lockdown some of the vendors have had to resort to begging and they are sympathetic to the problems they have faced. They also recognise that not all vendors can return to selling the magazine immediately, particularly those who don’t have ID or bank accounts, so can’t be set up to take cashless payments.

One of those vendors was Hughie in Moreton, Merseyside. Like many vendors, he didn’t have any form of photo ID but staff in the Liverpool office worked quickly to get him some as soon as it was clear that vendors could start returning to the streets. The ID card arrived on Tuesday and today, Wednesday, he is back on his pitch and is “over the moon”.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “So good to be here. But my back is killing me. I’m not used to standing up for so long now.”

Since starting to sell that morning it’s been steady sales-wise. Not brilliant but, Hughie says, it’s clear his customers have missed him and his dog Dave, who comes with him to the pitch.

“As soon as Dave saw his harness coming out this morning he knew he was coming here,” says Hughie. “He’s missed being on the pitch, especially because he used to get a steak every week off a lady who bought it for him from the market.”

For Hughie, who turns 52 in three weeks, it’s been tough coping financially since lockdown. After years of not claiming, he applied for some benefits to plug the gap in his income. “They gave me £120 a month,” he says. “That hardly covers my gas and electric, let alone food for me and Dave.” Because he found the threat of sanctions so stressful, he’s already told the benefits office that he’s “back working again”.

“It’s a pain having to pay by card to buy the magazines,” he says. “Like it was a pain to have to sort my ID out before I could sell. But that’s just the way it is at the moment. At least I’m here.”

He says he is “paranoid” about getting the virus, even though he’s got the PPE provided by the office. “People are still dying from it,” he says. “But I have to come back and sell the magazine otherwise I’ll starve.”

Back over in Brighouse it’s been slow for Ian since he started selling the magazine, but he’s seen a few of his regular customers. Like Stefan and Hughie, he’s hopeful things will get
back to normal soon.

“My customers were happy to see me back,” he says. “And I know I have some more regulars to come and even if I am not selling many magazines, it’s good to be back.”

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