Guarding History at 16th and Valencia Streets

Rosa Campos displays a newspaper in front of the stand. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

Rosa Campos displays a newspaper in front of the stand. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

Every morning at 4 a.m., Rosa Campos’ alarm insistently buzzes. She unfurls, shakes the sleep from her limbs and dashes out of her apartment at 3rd and Kirkwood to catch the first bus of the day. By 5:05 a.m., she can be found inside the newsstand at 16th and Valencia, hawking papers to the remaining few who read news the old-fashioned way.

The stand, which has been in its Mission location for decades, is a simple affair. The interior is coated bright green, save for a few patches of white where the paint has chipped off. Near the back corner, a poster of Jesus dangles in front of a long wooden stick, which Campos routinely waves around to ward off the “locos” who prowl the streets and bother her when the neighborhood is still rising with the sun.

These days, Campos says she deals with the “locos” as often as the customers. In the past several years, the Chronicle-operated newsstand has seen a dip in sales as paper subscriptions throughout the city have steadily declined. When the 72-year-old Salvadoran native began working at the stand three years ago, she would typically sell around 50 papers a day. But now that the newspaper has nixed the popular TV guide, her hard-copy sales have dropped to between 20 and 30 copies a day — with a few exceptions.

“When the President talks or gives a speech, the paper doesn’t sell more copies. But when the Giant’s play — then it really sells,” she chuckled, unfolding a newspaper and setting it on the stand.

Her friend Raul Bermudez, a small man who’s paid her a visit at work almost every day for the past year — “to make sure she’s safe” — nodded in agreement. “Young people just don’t buy newspapers anymore,” he said. “It’s all men over 50,” adding that patrons generally work at nearby restaurants and liquor stores and are rarely younger Mission transplants.

A few minutes later, a man in his early 30s approached Campos and asked to buy a paper. “Three dollars,” she said, removing a copy from the stack in front of her. The young man looked very post-workout pre-brunch San Francisco chic, in a resident Northface fleece and crisp running shoes. His interaction with Campos marked the first time he bought a paper at the stand. “Honestly, I didn’t even know it existed,” he said, before backing away from a stumbling man who asked him for cash. “That happens a lot,” Campos said,” eyeing the man as he zig-zagged down the street.

Campos has been around long enough to see the neighborhood, and its residents, radically change. Originally from San Miguel, El Salvador, she relocated to the Mission in 1979 as the Central American country was in the throes of a notoriously brutal civil war. “I go back now, it’s safe. But back then…” she trailed off and shook her head for emphasis. “It was bad.”

After moving to San Francisco, she found a community of Latin Americans in the Mission and settled into a small apartment on 21st Street and Bryant; finding work at a no-frills Latin restaurant called El Tasumal. “Back then, the neighborhood was full of cholo’s. It looks different now,” she said, recalling the sounds and smells of the old neighborhood, a bygone Mission era.

Despite the changes, there are still things she loves about the neighborhood, like sunny winter afternoons and the cackle of pupusas as they sizzle on a grill nearby. Hanging out with customers and friends is one of Campos’ favorite parts of the job. Years ago, when she decided to start selling newspapers, the gig came with its own set of obstacles.

In El Salvador, Campos never learned to read or write — which makes selling a product founded on words a bit of a challenge. “People come up to me and ask, ‘What’s the news?’” to which she generally quips: “Who knows! I don’t know how to read.” But friends like Raul often pick up the paper and read her the headlines. That way, the copies she hands over to customers mean something to her, too.

“This is history,” she said, smacking the newsstand’s green wall. “I’m like a guardian of history. Even though I can’t read, I like giving words to other people.”

6 Comments

  1. Chill

    I know you were trying to draw a contrast between the poor hardworking immigrant and the rich, fleece clad “transplant” (though isn’t it clear they are BOTH ‘transplants’?), but it’s a bit much to make fun of the one young person who actually stops by and is a customer, isn’t it? Young people in the Mission can’t catch a break.

  2. $3.00 for a paper is more outrageous than $4.00 toast….

  3. Sandy

    This woman is amazing, thank you for this story!

  4. ThatGuy

    THANKS GOOGLE!!!!

Comments are closed.