Ed#476: A Vendor Near You

23 January 2015 Melissa Cranenburgh

Ed#476: A Vendor Near You

As this edition’s time on the streets draws to a close, and the new one is printed and distributed, we’ll begin a global event dedicated to the person who sold it to you – and many others in similar circumstances around the world. The International Network of Street Papers Vendor Week (2–8 February) acknowledges the approximately 14,000 vendors who sell street magazines in 600-odd cities around the world. A reminder that whether you’re in Brisbane or Belgrade, Oslo or Osaka, you can find something really worth reading – a far-from cheesy souvenir – that directly contributes to those who need it most.

About a year after I started working at The Big Issue here in Australia, I went on a trip to Japan. It was a strange time to travel as an Australian – to be suddenly flush with a newly generous exchange rate, after the global financial crisis had pushed most other places into recession. As a Japanophile, it was far from my first trip to the land of pachinko machines and superlatively good manners; but on this visit there were cracks starting to show on the well-tended surface, large enough for even a foreigner to see. There was a growing air of (very) polite rebelliousness creeping into even casual conversations. Many in their prime working years had been suddenly turfed out of what they had assumed would be lifetime careers. Those who’d had a good education, family support and the means, had tried to turn this into a small boon. International travel beckoned; creative pursuits filled the void left by more challenging work. But for those who had been barely clinging to the slipperiest part of the slope, the sudden tip in finances were enough to land them, rather brutally, onto the streets.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at the local Big Issue offices, which I was lucky enough to visit. Our benevolent franchise had landed in Japan and taken root in 2003, quickly becoming something unique to that place. It had quirkily Japanese content – the most widely sold edition at that time was one where a food writer had based recipes on the ‘ask a vendor’ agony aunt column – and the local vendor support workers increasingly acted as a valuable basic service to those suddenly locked out in the cold. Helping some to know their rights to unemployment benefits, to fill in forms, to find some kind of accommodation. Many of those who sold The Big Issue in Japan ‘slept rough’ (on the streets); and it was common to see vendors, neatly dressed, wheeling compact suitcases into the vendor offices – each bag containing all their worldly belongings. As it had in other parts of the world, Japan’s Big Issue had adapted to suit the political climate and needs of the vendors, as much as the taste of its readers. Filling in the gaps left where the government had failed.

While it should always be part of any national agenda to build a society that doesn’t leave anyone behind, increasingly – all over the world – it’s fallen to those outside of government to find solutions to the people left on the margins. The international street paper movement fits into that category. Some would call it a Social Enterprise; others…well, they might quibble semantics. One thing’s for sure: there’s a growing mood of dissatisfaction with the state of inequity growing around the world, and a need to do something sustainable to bridge the growing divide. This edition, author Michael Green examines the idea of Social Enterprises (p18), whatever they are, and the hope that has motivated them. And Clem Bastow interviews the ineffable polyglot, Eddie Izzard (p14): comedian, Europhile, would-be politician and proof that humour can sometimes be universal. Just remember as you thank your vendor, and flick through the pages: The Big Issue, no matter where you buy it, is a magazine like no other.

Melissa Cranenburgh, Associate Editor