Imagine that every small town and neighborhood had a place like the Sewickley News store back in the day when you could make a good living and raise a family selling paper newspapers, paper magazines, candy, cigarettes and paperback books.
Sitting near the center of Sewickley on Beaver Street, it was a seven-day-a-week part of the daily life of the borough’s residents. They came there to buy their papers and magazines, get a quick 10-cent cup of coffee or pick up a 25-cent glass bottle of pop from the classic Coke machine, not to mention chatting up Mrs. Gilmore or Joe, who worked the counter with the members of the Quinn family who ran the store.
But The News Stand, as many called it, was so much more than that to the members of The School of Quinn.
The graduates of that school, all of us now in our 30s or older, speak of our tenure there with reverential reflection — even though it entailed early mornings or interrupted afternoons walking or riding through snow, rain or stifling heat, all for about $1 or $2 an hour.
We were teens — or younger — newspaper carriers who delivered the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the dark of morning, The Pittsburgh Press after school or the Sewickley Herald once a week.
For nearly all of us, it was our first job, our first payday and our first taste of real work. And you got that job from Mr. Quinn or, after he died in 1975, Mrs. Quinn.
I knew Mr. Quinn only briefly, as the man with glasses from whom I bought the comics and baseball cards with my 50-cents-a-week allowance. And that may have been the extent of my involvement with The News Stand if not for two events that occurred simultaneously in the year he died.
On the same day in the spring of 1975 that my dad returned home to tell my mom that he had lost his job — the country was in a recession and we were one of its victims — my mom told my dad she was pregnant.
I don’t remember exactly how I learned about The School of Quinn, but I remember that Christmas 1975 was leaner than previous Christmases.
Sometime that winter, I walked down to The News Stand and asked if I could get a paper route.
Mrs. Quinn — a tall, robust woman with grey hair and an aura that said she was in charge — met me at the counter and asked how old I was. “Nine,” I said, hopefully.
“Come back when you’re 10, OK?” she said with an encouraging smile.
A couple months later, on April 30, 1976, I walked in again to The News Stand, looking for Mrs. Quinn.
“I’m 10 today,” I told her.
She smiled and dropped down a bit toward me and said: “All right. You’ll start at the end of school this summer.”
Later, Mrs. Quinn, with her sons Bobby and John as her lieutenants, taught me the Rules of The School of Quinn: You will be paid $10 a week (it would later be $13). You will pick up your papers at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday. All 80 papers must be delivered before 7 a.m. On Saturday you get an extra hour of sleep. (Only the Press went out on Sundays.) You will get any changes to your route on note cards (the back side of a cigarette carton) every morning. If it’s a STOP, you don’t deliver a paper to that address and you keep the card in your delivery bag and review it every morning until you get a START for the same address.
And, if you did your job well, there were perks: tips at Christmas from customers, an annual dinner for the paper boys and girls at the YMCA with prizes, and sometimes you didn’t get charged for ALL the candy you bought.
Mrs. Quinn gave me a white cloth delivery bag with a neon orange cloth handle that said “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” on the side, and assigned me to a route south of Beaver Street and north of The Ohio River Boulevard in Sewickley. (I still identify every house in that part of town by whether I delivered a paper to it or not.)
The immediate benefit of the job was the money. For the first time in my life I had income that did not come from my parents. I did the sensible thing, of course: I invested nearly all of it in baseball cards and comics.
The unexpected benefit was I began reading the paper as I walked my route, mainly the sports section — remember, Pittsburgh truly was the City of Champions at the time — and I read every story about the Pirates and Steelers and became a fan of columnist Phil Musick.
I didn’t know it then, but this was early training for me. It would be another decade before I knew I wanted to be a journalist.
When I sent my resume to the Post-Gazette a decade ago looking to join the reporting staff, I began my cover letter with this: “My first job was with the Post-Gazette.”
I worked six years for Mrs. Quinn before the demands of sports, marching band and high school homework made rising at 5:30 a.m. almost impossible and I started mowing lawns for money instead, and I visited The News Stand less and less before I headed off to college and, eventually, journalism.
The last time I saw Mrs. Quinn was the early 1990s, after I had gotten my first job in journalism in Missouri, and not long before she sold the store, retired and moved to Maryland. (The store would later fail in the face of competition from other retailers and online outlets.)
“You know, I don’t think I would have gone into journalism if you didn’t give me that paper route,” I told her.
“Then I’m glad I gave it to you,” she said, smiling back.
The obituary I found in the Herald that came to my home the other day said her first name was Helen and that she had died on Feb. 8 and was 90 years old. Clearly a member of the family wrote it because it captured well the place that The News Stand had in the community, noting that it “provided two generations of young people with their first jobs as news carriers.”
As a proud graduate of The School of Quinn, I am so saddened by Mrs. Quinn’s death. But I’m so glad she was part of all that I have met.
Sean D. Hamill is a Post-Gazette staff writer and delivery boy emeritus (firstname.lastname@example.org,412-263-2579).