Walking along a sidewalk I’ve trod upon many times before, in front of a cemetery I even featured not so long ago, I came upon a little painted landmark that I had not previously noticed. From a distance I thought it was a power box indicative of buried cables in the area, since it’s increasingly common for community groups to turn them into artists’ canvasses.
Sure, it’s decorated. But it isn’t any sort of power box. It’s an old news rack, or a newspaper vending machine, if you will. And it looks like the adjacent church property that owns the cemetery maintains this little news rack as a sort of catch-all Little Community Pantry: a place for people to deposit old goods (mostly non-perishable foods, I’d imagine, since it’s a pantry) while those in need can pick them up.
It’s been six months since my last article on the subject of news racks, and I’m still scratching my head on what places can do with some of the old artifacts related to the increasingly vestigial newspaper era. It’s a fine use for an increasingly obsolete vending tool that used to stand at almost every urban street corner. And it’s not like people don’t make impromptu purchases at city intersections anymore—we aren’t quite that cashless yet—but they sure aren’t buying newspapers. As one of the commenters on that previous blog aptly reminded me six months ago, in the era of internet-based news delivery, the etched-in-stone character of a newspaper loses its sheen almost right off the press; within a few hours, the news on the printed page is outdated. Meanwhile, the telegram-style delivery of news feeds, easily available on smart phone notifications, compels the news outlets can elevate every detail to the status of breaking news. While a newspaper vending machine might have previously seemed viable until early afternoon of each day (at least until the evening paper was getting printed), in 2022 a news rack’s content is outdated within minutes.
And so the newspaper vending machine becomes obsolete. Ubiquitous twenty years ago and still fairly common even a decade ago (dropping from 46% to 20% of daily single-copy sales in that time, and likely below 10% today), the major manufacturers have ceased production in the last seven years. It has exhausted its purpose, so the “vintage” ones now sell for widely variable prices, with owners speculating on the demand through sites like eBay. The rest are just a surfeit. Most clutter landfills, while a precious few get transformed into repositories for charitable interchange, like the one featured in the photos above, courtesy of the Calloway United Methodist Church that also owns the land containing the small cemetery. From my perspective, it’s comforting to see both the reuse of one of these aging contraptions as well as an attempt to rebrand and aestheticize it.
But the newspaper vending machine is part of a family of vending tools used to sell tangible, analog media in the digital age, all of which are facing extinction. I never featured the image in a blog article until now, but it’s too germane to the topic for me to ignore it:
It’s an old Blockbuster Video drop box, which I noticed in the town next door to the Little Community Pantry captured above. While Calloway Baptist is in the northern Virginia suburb of Arlington County, this Blockbuster Video drop box stands right on King Street, the historic main drag of Alexandria, just seven miles away. My original reference to this drop box captured particularly high engagement; the nostalgia factor went through the roof. But that’s the point: Blockbuster Video, formerly the largest video rental chain in the world, went almost completely defunct in the early 2010s, losing out to video-on-demand, mail-order, automated kiosks at supermarkets, and finally streaming. The formerly dominant Blockbuster corporation failed to compete with all of them. For Boomers, Gen X-ers, and older Millennials, the chain so profoundly captures the entertainment pop-culture ethos of the 1990s and early 2000s that a drop box constitutes a charming relic, even though it symbolizes everything about the analog, two-separate-car-trips experience that ultimately destroyed the business model and the company. The one surviving Blockbuster chain—an old franchise surviving in no small part from its huge, international, online fan base—still features the same old Blockbuster look (and smell), earning enough clout that its owner could rent the place out via AirBnB for sleepovers. (The median age at these sleepovers is probably around 42.)
I’m sure one could find thousands of other Blockbuster drop boxes across the country, though most heavily concentrated in the same landfills that are greeting those old newspaper vending machines. At least someone decided to keep this one as a vessel for the free exchange of old video cassette and DVDs. (However, upon looking at it further, I’ll concede that it might be a knock-off. The yellow logo looks stenciled in, and it says “Free Blockbuster” which never would have appeared in the original. And besides, why would such a machine allow people to freely open and close the slots, thereby undermining its security? Didn’t the old Blockbuster company actually have slots within the front windows for after-hours video drop-off?) Regardless of this gizmo’s history, its a charming attempt to save old analog movies from the junkyard—an effort no less humble but equally noble as the Little Community Pantry.
But the same obsolescence among media vending machines has prompted a DIY repurposing culture: magazines are suffering the same fate as newspapers, and even the home magazine rack struggles to maintain relevance right alongside its commercial counterpart. Consequently, internet publications offer suggestions on how to reuse them: kitchen accessories, planters, decorative shelving, and so forth. Alas, despite the stunning ascendency in popularity of variants on the Little Community Pantry, or the proliferating Little Free Library, relatively few seem to adopt to the media exchange devices from yesteryear. The original Little Free Library (established back in 2009 as a literacy promotion campaign) assumed a typology somewhat akin to a birdhouse but modeled after an old one-room school, with a transparent front door. The wooden schoolhouse remains the “brand” for most Little Free Libraries (albeit with considerable leeway), but a few have adapted to news racks. That said, the demand for charitable goods aligns well with the decline of the conventional use of newspaper vending machines; books and food supplies benefit equally reasonably safe, secure place to hold them. A newspaper vending machine is typically more durable and holds more supplies than the wooden schoolhouse, though I suspect aesthetics are a big factor for the schoolhouse logo. The wooden ones cuter. And there’s no threat of rust when they deteriorate. But we know from experience that a newspaper vending machine at least keeps its contents dry.
So why not do what the Callloway UMC did with its Little Community Pantry, and paint an old one? These models have proven incredibly adaptable. Here’s an a prototype in Washington DC, for example, that intends to serve as a sort of diorama for community mini-art displays.
The picture didn’t turn out well, unfortunately, but the glass-door “birdhouse” refers to itself as the “Free Little Art Gallery”, though it looked pretty empty at the time I took this photo. Unfortunately, I catch more than a whiff of class snobbery amidst the entire undertaking: the Little Community Pantry intends to help those in need with food supplies, which almost certainly constitutes a gesture toward lower-income populations. Meanwhile, the Little Free Library model has buffeted criticism that they almost entirely exist in reputable old affluent neighborhoods. That’s certainly been my observation, but it’s no huge surprise: old neighborhoods tend to be more walkable and thus more likely to benefit from passers-by as an audience for their books. And affluent areas tend to claim more voracious readers—a generalization to be sure, and, like all generalizations, not an entirely fair one. But bookstores are more prevalent in wealthy communities as a reflection of market demand.
As for Little Free Libraries, they offer a chance for the nation’s most literate homeowners not just to divest themselves of their old, unneeded books, but to show off how cultured they are. Is that a gibe on my part? Sure, a little bit. Because my experience with these come-one-come-all repurposed birdhouses is that they offer a chance for the owners to impress their cultural tastes on everyone else—sometimes with bewildering results. And, to make my case, I offer this example of a Little Free Library owned by a nameless church in northern Virginia, specifically targeting children:
The glare on the window makes it hard to tell, but nestled within that glass and wooden door (circled in pink) is a certain autobiography of a notorious 20th century figure. I could find two books by this name; I can’t remember which one was here in the box. One version specifically intends to reach the 10 to 12 age range, but, judging from the thickness of the book inside, I think it’s the other: a massive bestseller from the 1970s. Kind of weird for a children’s library, but stranger things are gracing bookshelves these days. As a defender of all books’ rights to exist, I can at least say this is better than a landfill. Or a pyre. But, given the decline of newspaper vending machines and newspapers themselves, how much longer will we even be able to buy conventionally bound, paper books?