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Feb 4, 2014

Why buy a Big Issue? Because selling it is bloody hard work

There are tough gigs but few tougher than that of The Big Issue street vendor, as Vivienne Skinner discovered at she donned the flouro vest for International Vendor Week.

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Big Issue

There are tough jobs. And then there is selling The Big Issue. At lunchtime. Mid-summer. With a junk shop spruiker competing for my patch of pavement.

Bear with me while I channel Gen Y: OMG it was hard.

From the moment I arrived, brimming with confidence as I donned the red Big Issue cap and the fluoro Big Issue vest, my bundle of mags in my hand and waited for the queue of buyers to form to the tragic moment an hour-and-a-half later when I called it quits, I sold one magazine. That’s right, folks, I stood for an hour-and-a-half on George Street in the middle of Sydney on a mid-summer day and sold one $6 magazine. One. (Thank you to that lady with the kind grey eyes and the gentle heart, who fossicked for ages until she’d counted out my cash — I love you, and I have spoken to God and there is a place reserved for you right beside him in heaven on that day, many decades into the future, when you head his way.)

For those who don’t know, this week is International Vendor Week, when the spotlight shines on those who make their living selling The Big Issue on street corners. It is the week when a few dozen Sydney CEOs stand alongside regular vendors and get a feel for what a cinch it is to sell The Big Issue. As the CEO of a modest-sized company and a long-time supporter of The Big Issue, I was happy to oblige. It couldn’t be that hard.

My partner was Mick, a lean, scrubbed, gingery middle-aged man who sleeps rough. He is hoping to find regular accommodation and has a mate who reckons he can find them something that avoids the long government housing queue. In the meantime, he sleeps where he can, and I am impressed at how well he cares for himself in the absence of an ensuite. He’s been selling The Big Issue since 2006 and loves his job. It gives him structure, human contact and cash in his pocket.

Our spot outside Wynyard Station was not Mick’s (or my) regular spot, and it became clear as time passed that success at this business depends on one giant factor: constancy. Selling always in the same location where you can build up regulars, nearby workers who get to know you a little, get used to your presence. The regular “0wner” of our spot didn’t want to be involved with the CEO event, so Mick and I were assigned it instead. The result? No one recognised us, there was no “care” factor, and everyone just walked on. One young woman arrived with a bag of hot chips for the regular seller — she does this every day — and was terribly concerned to find her gone. Mick got them instead.

Most people probably don’t realise that selling The Big Issue is a genuine micro business. It’s not charity. Mick must buy all his magazines before his shift. He then keeps half the cover price — that is, $3 per sale. Occasionally he’ll sell 40 in a day, though usually much fewer. Apparently vendors have more success in Melbourne, perhaps because the magazine has been around there for longer.

The motto of The Big Issue is “helping people help themselves”, and it indeed gives thousands of rough sleepers a living, a leg up into the rental market, and the chance to chat to the rest of us. And it is a great read — this issue Leonardo DiCaprio and The Wolf of Wall Street jostle for space with what’s wrong with Facebook and images by the world’s best wildlife photographers.

By the end of my shift, my feet ached and I was hot, hungry and thirsty. But even though it had been a dud sale day, I hadn’t wasted my time. Meeting stoic Mick and watching his unflagging persistence was an inspiration. As I undid the vest and handed him back all my mags, minus one, I turned my eyes heavenward once again and offered a silent word of thanks that I don’t make my living as a street vendor.

So if you see Mick and his mates this week, or any week, please buy a magazine and give them the chance to help themselves. I guarantee, there’s no tougher job in town.

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