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How porn and a price hike helped this newsagent’s son

After selling newspapers for two years 14-year-old Tony Barnett saved up $1,700 to take him to the 1975 International Scout Jamboree in Norway.

After selling newspapers for two years 14-year-old Tony Barnett saved up $1,700 to take him to the 1975 International Scout Jamboree in Norway. Credit:Trevor James Robert Dallen.

Who knows whether, in the John Fairfax board room in Sydney, the sombre, deliberating gentlemen understood the impact their pricing decision was about to have on the legions of paperboys and papergirls around the country?

Within hours, we were raking it in.

This week is National Newsagent Week, part of a campaign to celebrate the many thousands of newsagents who have spent a lifetime throwing newspapers over fences before – like so many other businesses – being clobbered by digitalisation.

My father was one of them. He bought a newsagency in Canberra in 1971, at a time when printed newspapers were still a reliable magnet, pulling customers into the store.

My father would tap his noggin to appraise me of his intelligence, before outlining his theory.

“The newspapers go right up at the back of the shop. You don’t make much profit from the papers, but the customer is required to walk past a whole aisle of Hallmark cards. That, son, is where we make the big mark-up.”

The greeting cards had a string of tiny numbers on the back, with the price hidden within the code, but only if you knew where to look. This may be why customers so frequently looked aghast when told the price of the humble birthday card they’d selected.

People normally bought a handful of items. Like every son and daughter of a newsagent, my arithmetic skills were honed by my ability to add up the standard order of the day – a Daily Mirror, a packet of Winfield Reds and a box of Bex. To be precise: 10¢ plus 67¢ plus 15¢ = 92¢.

Oh, and a greeting card? That brings it to $5.92.

Cigarettes, headache powders and newspapers were all big sellers, as were what they called “partworks”. Do they even exist now? They’d be a History of World War II – in 52 collectable editions, or a Great Composers of the World, or a Children’s Science Encyclopedia.

The first two issues would be cheap, and normally include an attractive free gift, but – once they had you in their clutches – the prices would soar skywards as fast as a spitfire in the Battle of Britain, an exciting encounter to be covered in next week’s edition.

Behind the till, we’d have metal drawers, filled with pre-orders for partworks, plus the folders and binders in which to store them.

When we weren’t selling partworks, we were selling pornography – the 1970s being the moment when the floodgates burst and all sort of disgraceful material could go on sale – albeit in a discreet curtained off area, tucked beneath the stairs to my father’s office.

As a young would-be progressive, I was embarrassed by my attendance at a private school – the toffy Canberra Grammar – but at least I knew the family secret: all the fees were paid for from my father’s controversial selection of “one-handed magazines”.

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If this all sounds like a life of merry profiteering, there was another side to the business – heaving in the stacks of papers in the pre-dawn, rolling each paper into a throwable stick, via means of a narrow band of manila paper, then delivering them before 7am.

Worst thing: needing to have your car window down, so you could pitch each paper, however cold the Canberra air.

At the end of each day, there was a similarly menial task: using a one-sided razor blade to “head” the unsold papers – cutting off the masthead to prove it was unsold, and thus worthy of a refund from the publisher.

With magazines, it was the front cover that was sent back, meaning you could always pick a newsagent’s family – or a newsagent’s best friend – from the decapitated magazine from which they’d be reading.

These days, newsagents rely on gambling, working away at counters in which the air is heavy with scratch-lottery dust. They struggle on – despite falling sales of almost everything on which we used to rely – cigarettes, greeting cards, newspapers, pornography and the long-banned headache powders.

Through all their travails, they deserve our support. Whereas else can you get a sheet of coloured cardboard perfect for an eight-year-old’s school project, while also picking up a magazine, a pack of gum and a $2 Scratchie?

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