Before Press Shops and the ubiquitous free paper stand, downtown dwellers used to go to cubed newsagent booths for their daily news needs. Scruffy and shabby, these kiosks often enjoyed primed retail spots and a close contact with their clients. With only a handful of them left on the city’s sidewalks, we thought to catch up with the scions of the industry’s main players.
Before seeing its supremacy challenged successively by the radio, television and the Internet, printed press held the undisputed monopoly on providing news and entertainment. Following the Second World War, dozens of newsstands, also elegantly known as “booths”, flourished all over Brussels. Posted on the sidewalks of the city’s busiest streets, these small aluminium and glass boxes provided the passers-by with a large selection of newspapers and magazines. In 1980, their total number peaked at 52. Today, with the development of independent newsagents, the Press Shop franchise and the shifting pattern towards an increasingly digital con- sumption of information, Brussels’ 11 remaining newspaper kiosks owe their survival to a handful of faithful customers and the inherent nostalgia and sympathy that these iconic and minuscule fortresses inspire. However many Belgians still enjoy purchasing their news bites from these cube-shaped print providers, working in one doesn’t seem to be an option anymore. The booths are now having a hard time finding a local owner. The prospect of working 12 hours a day, six days a week to earn the same amount you’d get on the dole understandably sounds like a bad deal. As a result, newsstands are now mostly occupied by courageous Vietnamese natives who more often than not barely speak a word of French or Flemish.
To make matters worse, the crisis seems to have also hit one of the capital’s most cherished symbols of the press’ past golden era: Maurice’s newspaper kiosk on Place de la Monnaie/ Muntplaats, silenced and barricaded like a mummy in purgatory. Pierre Heymbeeck, better known as Maurice, was a true figure in downtown Brussels. His death a few weeks ago at age 78 has left many of his newspapers and customers orphans of their favourite newsagent. A true hardworking Brusseleer with a vintage sense of what customer service should be, his regulars were systematically greeted by their surname and eventually, a joke. Such was his popularity that he had clients still buying their gazettes from him even though they hadn’t lived or worked in the neighbour- hood for years. “He loved his job dearly,” sighs his surviving 73-year-old sister, Philomène. Retired nine years ago from working at a print shop, this still vigorous single lady should know. She’s dedicated most of her life’s spare time to helping out her family’s kiosk business. “We are a dynasty of newsagents,” she asserts proudly. “My grandmother was already selling newspapers in the streets of Brussels over 100 years ago. She used to call it ‘den tournai doon’ as she was not allowed to stay at the same place because the permit given by the city of Brussels stipulated ‘mobile street vendor’. I also remember my mum carrying around a ‘Metropole Hotel’ bag made with old bed sheets, stuffed with the current issues of the French newspaper L’Intransigeant. She made a living by selling them to tourists. It was hard work and she often stayed out in the streets until midnight.”
During the occupation in 1941, the Germans built two newsstands made of glass and aluminium on Place de la Monnaie/Muntplaats. In these politically uncertain times, virtually everyone was hungry for news and the Germans were also looking for ways to spread their propaganda. From then on, the ‘booths’ started to spread all over Brussels. Philomène’s mother saw an opportunity to sell more kinds of newspapers and magazines in a somehow less hostile environment. In 1944, she settled in the one right on the corner of Rue de l’Evèque/Bisschopstraat and turned it into a family affair. Nelly, Philomène’s sister, remembers: “Everyday at five am, our dad would walk to Rue du Persil/Peterseliestraat with a handcart to pick up the daily papers from the distributor and wheel them back to the kiosk. He would then open it from six am to 10am, at which time our brother Maurice would take over until 10pm. This routine would go on everyday of the week including public holidays. On Sundays, the kiosk was closed but it didn’t stop Maurice from working. He would go out on the streets around the Bourse/Beurs area to sell Les Paris Turfistes (a sport results newspaper) and Les Sports (which would go on to become La Dernière Heure) on the Parvis Saint-Gilles/Sint-Gillis Voorplein. By the 50s, newspapers and magazines were starting to become a big thing. Newspapers had up to five editions per day, and it wasn’t uncommon to sell 1000 copies of Le Soir.”
If all their hard work and dedication never really paid the Heymbeeck family big dividends, their booths did win a contest rewarding the highest sales of the ‘Pourquoi-Pas’ newspaper on several occasions. “That’s how Maurice won his first television set,” remembers Philomène. An eloquent speaker, intelligent and with a knack for jokes, Maurice turned newspaper sales into an art but, most notably, a genuinely human experience. His social skills, coupled with the hands-on experience he gained, led him to take on his own kiosk in 1972, right next to his mother’s. He went on to guard his prized square meter spot for the rest of his life. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter, these exposed urban workplaces are not for the faint-hearted. Inside you can barely turn around, and your vision is limited to the tiny unobfuscated open window through which the clients pop their head in to communicate. Thankfully, Maurice had nothing but friends in the neighbourhood. He could always count on the nearby café to let him use their bathroom and offer him a coffee. At night, while he was away, the bouncers of the ‘La Gaité’ nightclub kept an eye on his kiosk to prevent vandalism. Maurice was born in an era when Brussels was still a village with values of courage and dedication, and that vibe beamed around him through the Monnaie/ Munt square. Small businesses throughout the capital shut down everyday, but with the demise of Maurice’s booth, it is the entire downtown Brussels which lost a part of its soul.
Here are some pictures of the last remaining kiosks, courtesy of our photography intern Melika.