A Former San Francisco Newsie Remembers Life at the Corner of Van Ness and Vallejo

At the beginning of the week, we promised you an interview with a former newsie who worked right here in San Francisco. Today, we’re happy to introduce Santo Alioto, who sold papers on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Vallejo Street in the 1950s. Below you’ll find our interview with him, as well as a video of Alioto talking to us at his old stomping grounds. You can help us hire our own newsies — who will take to the streets on energy efficient, environmentally friendly bicycles — by supporting our Pedal-Powered News Kickstarter campaign.

A born-and-bred San Franciscan, Santo Alioto was just 10 years old when he started selling newspapers on the corner of Hyde and Union streets in the early 1950s. He made $1.42 his first night on the job, which he calls “pretty good money back then.” Eventually, Alioto was promoted to the corner of Van Ness and Vallejo, where we recently interviewed him.

“It was mainly traffic from the cars,” explained Alioto. “The cars would come by and you’d be holding up the headlines.” Newspapers were 7 cents, and “if they gave you a dime, you were really lucky that night.” All told, Alioto made about $1.65 each evening. Working five nights a week, that came to roughly $32 a month. Some of that money went to help his family pay the rent, which was — get ready for it, San Francisco apartment hunters — $36 a month for a two-bedroom flat in North Beach.

Times were certainly different, in more ways than one.

“In those days, there wasn’t as much television or radio,” Alioto said. “So people would take the paper in the afternoon and they’d go home and read the paper in the early evening or after dinner. People were devoted to the newspaper.”

And they had options. Alioto told us that at the time, there were four newspapers in San Francisco: the morning papers were the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, and the afternoon papers were the San Francisco Call-Bulletin and the San Francisco News. On top of that, each newspaper had different editions. The Call-Bulletin, for example, had the Home Edition, the Seven Star Sport (“for all the horse-racing junkies”) and the last paper of the day, the Nine Star Final.

The most popular paper was the Call-Bulletin. “People were devoted to the Call Bulletin,” Alioto said. “If you ran out of Call-Bulletins, many times they would say well I’ll come back later, or I’ll buy it at another corner, or they reluctantly, reluctantly would buy the News.”

With the rise of television, the afternoon newspapers began to fade and the Call-Bulletin merged with the News. By that time, Alioto was a student at San Francisco State University, and instead of working the corner at Van Ness and Vallejo, he answered calls downtown at the News Call-Bulletin’s Subscriber and Complaints Department.

Alioto worked his way through college and became a high school teacher. Now 74, he lives with his wife in Contra Costa County. A life-long newspaper reader, he maintains a subscription, but is dismayed to see how few daily newspapers there are still standing. “The one thing about the newspapers fading away,” said Alioto, “is where do you get your news from and how reliable is it?”

Still, he says it makes him feel good to reminisce about his afternoons on the corner of Van Ness and Vallejo. “It was fun selling newspapers,” Alioto said. “And the best part about it was that you got to go home and count out your change.”