Give Me That Old-Time Magazine Distribution

12 02 2009

When I entered the publishing arena stumbling headlong with eyes closed and arms akimbo in the mid-1970s there were over 400 I.D. s(Independent Distributor) in these United States. Every major city had at least one and there were I.D.s in many minor cities as well.

Each was family-owned and operated and most were very lucrative, supplying books and especially magazines to almost every worthy retail account within a certain geographic vicinity determined by common sense and a certain law-of-the-jungle respect for one’s neighbors.

Drug stores, grocery stores, and convenience stores made up the majority of the business. I was in Texas working sometimes for an I.D. and sometimes for a New York publisher visiting periodically in a periodical business that maintained itself on the rhythms of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, and annual distributions. Like the months and the seasons the magazines came and went and some did well and some did not and some disappeared only to rise up again a year or two later.

I was in Texas and called regularly on Dallas and Fort Worth and San Antonio. Houston was always the bastard child—a large city that somehow never managed to profit anyone.

Then there were smaller cities with Austin a jewel-laden gold mine if I may mix a couple of metaphors—the University of Texas at Austin drew lovers of the printed word from all corners of the Lone Star State. And Temple, Texas, adjacent to the city of Killeen and Fort Hood with its captive audience of soldiers gobbling up the sophisticates and suspense novels and the old Ballantine War Books. The running joke in Texas is a rep would call in to New York, “I’m headed to Temple tomorrow.” New York would inevitably respond, most often sans humor, “Oh, I didn’t know you were Jewish!”

And to the east of Dallas was Tyler, the Rose Capital of Texas and Paris, which brought more geographical jokes from New York. Then on to Shreveport which was in Louisiana but more like an east Texas city, and Texarkana sitting on the “taint” between two states.

Then head west driving forever to get nowhere with everything flat and the bobbing up and down of the oil pumps, until you reached Lubbock with its cotton and up north in the Panhandle, Amarillo and the Llano Estacado and the purple sage of Zane Grey, and the beginning of the Great Plains with the wind howling down all the way from the North Pole, or so it seemed.

Then head farther  west until the small mountains begin and to Sierra Blanco and then El Paso which led the way to Juarez, Mexico and illicit delights and dangers and on through the pass into New Mexico and the far west.


Then not quite last down into the Big Bend country once described by a Mexican cowboy thus, “Where the rainbows wait for the rain, and the big river is kept in a stone box, and water runs uphill and mountains float in the air, except at night when they go away to play with other mountains…” And there at the crossroads where bees made the sweetest honey was the little town of Alpine, and the I.D. wholesaler would sit on the front porch of his house next door to the agency and he and his wife would watch for you if they knew you were coming and offer you a lemonade or a glass of iced tea to wash away some of that west Texas dust.

Now all of this is gone. Word has it that one of the last of the I.D.s, Anderson News who survived when the others did not by eating its neighbors before it could be eaten, has now itself ceased to distribute. And of all those I.D.s only Hudson News which was not quite so hungry and which settled into something of a niche servicing airport and other terminal newsstands throughout the country, only Hudson survives, along with Canadian giant The News Group.

Alpine, Texas

Alpine, Texas

Somewhere along the way, the anaconda that the distribution industry had become, in its insatiable hunger, swallowed its quarry feet first by mistake and the scrabbling claws and jutting ribs of a vanquished prey brought the behemoth low. And the world is a sadder place without all those people whose job it was to bring the printed word to the masses. We live in a time of great change and many giants of the earth are no more.