The first time Junior Najor stands next to me, I stumble.
We’re standing in front of the literary journals at his newsstand on the east side of 30th Street in North Park, and he has come around from behind the counter to help me look for The Sun magazine. He emanates a kind of heat and comes toward me with eye contact so direct (though somehow gentle rather than aggressive) that I take a sideways step to the left and trip over my shoe. I try to laugh it off and end up babbling incoherently about the other magazines I’m looking for.
Five minutes later, as I flee with my reading material in a plastic bag, Najor calls out, “Hope to see you again soon.” And although I have already sworn I will never show my face here again, when he says this, I begin to ponder which still-in-print publication I might need to come back for tomorrow.
That’s the thing about Junior Najor: he’s got um…appeal…and he knows how to use it.
3911 30th Street, North Park
The next time I return to Paras Newsstand, it’s on official business (a personal reconnaissance mission disguised as an editorial feature), and I’m armed with my notebook and tape recorder. It’s a Friday evening, and because I’m approximately an hour late, I apologize as I walk in the door.
“Aw, it’s okay,” Najor tells me. “You’re worth the wait.”
I’m relieved to hear the corny come-on because it means the eye-contact thing from last time doesn’t mean we have a personal chemistry that I need to avoid; it means this is just the way he is. The comment makes his gelled hair, his beefy muscles, and his smile feel a little more… obvious.
“A crazy lady just brought me toothpicks,” he says, holding up a pack of frilly green cellophane-topped sandwich toothpicks. It’s a random detail whose significance will reveal itself at a later moment. For now, while Najor tends to a customer at the register, I lean against the counter and settle into the urban atmosphere that I traded for the suburbs two years ago and miss so much.
The Paras Newsstand sits just north of the corner of 30th and University, at the bus stop on the east side of the street. Outside, a blue, white-and-red advertisement board announces Nestle ice creams “chillin’ inside,” and overhead, the underside of the awning that stretches down the length of the sidewalk bears fluorescent lights that brighten up the block as the daylight dims.
This is my favorite corner in all of San Diego, especially on a Friday night, when it’s bustling with its urban collection of people. Other corners in, say, Little Italy, Hillcrest, or downtown, certainly chime with the sounds of festivity at this time of day — glasses clinking, forks against plates, drunken merriment — but few offer the same range of humanity as this corner. Some people teeter past in heels or ties, dressed up and holding hands on dates, looking fresh and shiny and eager for the evening’s promises. Others whiz past on skateboards or shuffle by in baggy knit caps, Elvis Costello glasses and slouchy who-cares clothes. And some rest wearily on the bus bench with grocery bags and backpacks on the ground by their feet. It’s not necessarily the best of everything, but it’s some of everything, which is, in my opinion, the best.
The perfect vantage point for taking in the neighborhood’s population is from behind the counter at the newsstand, which has stood in this spot since 1949, long before Junior Najor landed on Earth to lure the ladyfolks with his direct gaze.
“Grab a drink,” the hunky 30-year-old says, pointing me toward the large coolers in the back. “Seriously.”
At the same moment, a dignified-looking man with white hair and navy-blue slacks drops a stack of magazines on the counter. In the few moments that I stand beside the man awaiting Najor’s attentions, I note that the inside of the older man’s pants pocket (yes, it’s slightly open and I can see inside) bears a smaller-scale version of the blue-and-white gingham check of his button-down shirt.
My first thought is, That looks nice. My second thought is, Details like that cost money.
Then, when I realize that the register has beeped about once per second for the whole time I’ve been standing here looking into the man’s pockets, I think, My God, Junior has been ringing this guy up for a long time.
Indeed, the man needs two bags for his magazines, and his total comes to $193.91.
Later, after the man has left, I ask Najor if that’s normal, a sale like that. He leans down, lowering his voice conspiratorially and says, “Okay, so this guy owns businesses in Mexico. He’s very wealthy. A lot of times, I’ll walk him out because he has so many magazines, and I’m putting the bags into a Ferrari or a brand-new Corvette Stingray or an Aston Martin.”
Then he offers more details about the guy, how he’s “not one of those arrogant rich dudes,” but is “a really cool guy,” how he says this time he’s here in San Diego for a couple of weeks and that in that time, Najor will probably see him twice more, when he’ll spend “half or maybe a quarter” what he spent this time.
“And this guy buys the pre-made tuna-fish sandwiches out of the cooler, too. I’ll watch him handle a bag of Cheetos in, like, two seconds, too. He’s awesome,” Najor says. “But, anyway, I have a few of those really good customers I need to keep me in business.”
I wait again while he rings up a lady with a shopping cart and one large orthopedic shoe who purchases a copy of Elle Décor.
Part of Najor’s charm lies in the combination of his boyish language (he uses the terms “awesome” and “dude” a lot), his penchant for philosophizing (he explores both religion and extraterrestrials with me), and the trusting way in which he meets a few of my more probing questions with, “I really hope you don’t write this down, but…”
And then there’s the way he addresses his regular customers by first name, grabs their favorite cigarette brands from the shelves before they even have to say anything, and knows their magazine preferences — sometimes even before they do.
At the time of this writing, Najor is a month shy of 30, and he has owned the newsstand with his partner Ken since the year following his 2007 graduation (with a degree in public administration) from San Diego State University. He worked as a coach and program coordinator for the City of El Cajon Recreation Center from his senior year in high school through all four years of college and would have liked a salaried position, but around the time of his graduation, government funds for youth programs were drying up.
“I was a part-time employee working 39 and a half hours. They tried to get me to stick around and wait for a position to open, but I was graduating from college and ready for a job with benefits and all that kind of stuff,” he says. “I was topped out at, like, $13 or $14 an hour.”
Guided tour of Paras newsstand
North Park's Paras Newsstand survives in the Internet age by supplying a variety of specialty magazines to customers of all sorts. A customer explains his particular interest and buying habits, and proprietor Junior Najor gives a guided tour of what is for sale.
For six months, Najor worked as a project engineer for a new construction company started by the father of one of the students he coached at the rec center. But the 2008 economy saw that fall through as well. So he began to think about going into business for himself.
Tonight, although Elias Hallaq (also known as “Tom”), one of Najor’s two employees, works the main register, Najor tells me his story in a start-stop-start-stop rhythm necessitated not only by the fact that he has to jump on the second register now and again, but also because he feels the need to offer a personal greeting to each regular who walks in.
“Hi, Joy!” he calls.
“How’s it going, Tiffany?”
In the middle of his story about how he landed the newsstand, a guy walks in wearing an Arrogant Bastard Ale T-shirt. Before the guy says anything, Najor looks up and reaches for the Djarum clove cigarettes.
“Four packs,” the guys says. And then after a beat, “I live in Santee. I wait ’til I come out here to buy the smokes.”
In response to the question on my face, Najor says, “I just have a cheaper price than everyone.”
Arrogant Bastard guy adds, “I play pinball across the street, too, so it makes sense for me to just wait ’til I get here.”
“Oh, you go over here to Coin-Op?” Najor asks, indicating the new bar/arcade across the street. And when the guy affirms, Najor says, “Oh, that’s awesome.”
A loud combination of sounds (decompressing air, the rumble of an engine, and a steady high-pitched beep) indicate that just outside the door an MTS bus is lowering to let passengers off or on. On a flat-screen television overhead, Dagmar Midcap cheerfully forecasts the weather.
Najor continues his story.
“My dad owns a mechanic and auto sales shop in La Mesa. My brother has a mechanic and auto body shop in Spring Valley,” he says. “[Being a business owner] kind of runs in the family. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you Chaldeans own everything in East County.’”
Najor’s partner, Ken Gabarra, a family friend (Najor’s dad and Ken’s wife are cousins) who once owned a liquor store in Lemon Grove was looking to start a new business around the time Najor started thinking about it seriously, too. And, coincidentally, the newsstand’s previous owners, brothers Mike and Rocky Atallah, who were also loosely related to Ken (“indirect brother-in-laws,” Najor says), were thinking about selling.
So, in October 2008, Najor and Gabarra bought Paras Newsstand.
For how much, I ask.
“You gonna write that down?” he responds.
Najor lets out a self-deprecating chuckle and says, “Way too much money. I realize that now.”
Okay, so how much?
Then he tells me the number and immediately adds, “But I’d rather you didn’t write that down. I was 24 years old and didn’t have the formula to work with as far as appraising a business. I realize that now.”
Where did the money come from?
“The bank. Loans. I’m still paying the loans, and I’ll be paying forever,” he says. “I borrowed from my dad for a down payment, and I’ve paid him back, but I’m still making payments on the loan.”
Now is the point at which it makes sense to ask why, 20 years into the internet age, someone would invest in a newsstand. And so I do. I would prefer to be gentle, but I go for direct instead.
“What were you thinking?”
“That’s a good question,” he says.
Then, he adds, “The first time I walked in here, I saw that it was more than a newsstand. If you were to look at the city plans, which I did, I looked at the city plans of exactly where the store lies. It was the dead center of a regentrification zone,” he says. “So, if all of that [revitalization] money was being put into one community, obviously they’re trying to make it better, they’re trying to bring people to that community. And, basically, I have a [15-year] lease. It’s a newsstand now, but if it gets bad enough, I can always turn the store into something else.”
But Najor is not planning to let go of the newsstand anytime soon. In fact, he spends the next 15 minutes explaining why he doesn’t think it’ll come down to that.
“Look, I’m not stupid. Obviously. I see what’s going on in the world,” he says, launching into a story about how his nephew and nieces, who are entering elementary school now, will likely never even know what a textbook is because everything will be done on tablets. “But just to defend magazines, there are still, to this day, new magazines coming out. My distributors send me emails with new titles being put out and being published and ask me how many copies I want.”
Besides that, the print world has a crew of loyal diehards who refuse to subscribe to their favorite publications online because they can’t own the material.
“Otherwise, you’re not actually buying it, you’re renting it,” he says.
This time, he tells the story of one of his customers, a graphic designer who works all day in front of a computer and buys magazines to give his eyes a break.
“When you’re reading from a piece of paper, there’s no glare,” he says.
He takes a breath for a moment, his enthusiasm for all print-positive evidence winding down only briefly. Then he revs back up.
“Here’s a big one,” he says. “Time magazine, Life magazine, Newsweek magazine, they all have collectors’ editions.”
He pauses, waiting, I think, for me to exclaim, “Aha! You’re right!” But I don’t. It takes me a second to keep up.
“You want to hold on to it and keep it in great condition for years and years so it accrues value,” he explains. “How are you going to do that with an iPad?”
He continues with a lesser list of reasons he’s not worried about the death of print quite yet.
“Not everybody has computers, you know?” he says. “[And there are] a lot of people who need to do collages.”
I laugh at the idea of collage-artists in capes — saving print as we know it.
Plus, Najor says, “Vinyl records are coming back,” adding that he recently heard of a company that has started manufacturing vinyl records again. This he offers as his final bit of evidence that “print will never die.”
Standing here, I can certainly understand his optimism. The shelves are lined with 4000 titles and include, by Najor’s estimation, 400 car and motorcycle magazines, 200 literary magazines, 300 fashion magazines, 200 hobby and aviation/train magazines, 150 music magazines, 100 puzzle magazines, and 100 knitting/cross-stitching/quilting magazines. Seriously, if that many magazines are still in print and selling, then print isn’t dead, damn it.
She must have grown an attachment.
Junior Najor grew up in East County and lived a sheltered suburban life, complete with four days of Catholic church per week, being an altar boy, catechism, and all that. His philosophy classes at San Diego State opened his eyes to new ways of seeing the world (in fact, he says, “My philosophy teacher said...” about five or six times during our evening together), but it’s the seven days he spends on this corner in North Park that has given him the real-life understanding that is now the basis of what he knows.
“Basically, anything goes,” he says. “In the suburbs, there are a couple of main mentalities of a community. Whereas if you live in the city and you grow up in the city, these kids have a lot more street smarts than kids who are growing up in the suburbs. There’s so much more diversity.”
I will soon learn that by “diversity,” he refers not only to the people mix of cultures represented in the neighborhood, but also to the diverse mental states of his customers.
“I sell a lot of phone cards to people from Africa and Mexico and Guatemala and Canada. Especially [with] Caffé Calabria right here. They get a lot of Italians and Europeans, so those people come here....
“You never know what to expect [from customers in general]. A lot of these people are, uh, I don’t know the right way to put it, unstable or, uh, I like to say they’ve been touched,” he says. “It keeps me entertained throughout the week.”
Najor stops to speak over my shoulder to someone behind me, “Hey, thanks for the toothpicks,” he says.
I turn around and see a caramel-skinned woman with striking eyes. Her hair is wrapped in a green scarf, turban-like, but haphazardly so. She carries a backpack and wears a denim miniskirt. She walks slowly toward the door and stares intensely at Najor.
“So, she comes just to see you?” I ask once she’s made her way back outside.
“Oh, she’s a stalker,” he says.
“So, I should be careful when I leave?” I ask.
He laughs it off and says no, but then begins to tell me about “tantrums” she’s had when she sees him helping female customers.
“I’ve had to let her know a couple times, ‘Dude, back off,’ because a couple girls have said, ‘She followed me and said something to me,’” he says. “Right now, she came in because she sees me talking to another girl. She hates that. She can’t handle it.”
He goes on. “She took advantage of the situation,” he says. “Like, I would help her out, let her use the restroom, the microwave, let her store things here. I’d help her out as much as I could. I’d give her food, everything. But then it just got to a point where she went crazy. Or crazier. I guess she grew an attachment.”
I make a note to hold my keys out from my knuckles at weapon-like angles and watch my back when I leave.
“There are a lot of mentally ill people in this neighborhood,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
He explains that managing the unstable element is a delicate matter. He wants to be generous because he considers himself a good guy, but he also sees that there are other benefits to doing so than just feeling good about his relationship with humanity.
“John is a guy who everyone knows is a shouter. He just randomly starts shouting stuff out. He comes in here and gets cigarettes from me all week. I give him credit all week and he pays me on Mondays. You show a guy like that you trust him, and it’s kind of crazy if you think about it,” he says, pausing for so long that I’m afraid the point eludes him. Then he picks back up again. “You’re here seven days a week, and you see the same street people over and over again,” he says. “They all talk. Everyone knows everyone on the streets. Those are the people who are coming in and buying cheap cigarettes. They’re all talking to each other all day, and you want to keep a good reputation.”
Some of the changes Najor has seen in the neighborhood in the past six years are good, and some, not so great. And this particular corner gets a little bit of everything.
“I would say 30th and University is probably one of the busiest hubs as far as public transportation goes. And now with all the gyms, the yoga studios, and restaurants and bars...” He trails off for a moment before continuing. “People who are coming to check out a new restaurant will walk by and say, ‘Oh, wow, I didn’t know there was a newsstand in San Diego.’ And, you know, they come in and a quick conversation with them sometimes turns into making new customers.”
The foot traffic has, he says, shifted from day to night. North Park once had a much greater percentage of retail, and while the gyms and the yoga studios and a handful of the restaurants are open during the day, they don’t provide the same daytime foot traffic that he got when the neighborhood was heavier on the retail. But what the yoga studios and gyms have done is take up a great deal of the available parking. And that, Najor says, hurts his business.
“They built a [parking] structure [on 29th Street] a few years ago, but a lot of people don’t use it,” he says. “The majority of the customers that kept this business running for a long time was the older crowd, the retirees and people without computers. They don’t want to have to park in the structure and then have to walk.”
Najor names parking as the number-one drawback to being in this location. But in 2013 he scored a major triumph in that realm when he saw that the addition of the “parklet” outside Caffé Calabria would eliminate the block’s 15-minute parking spots.
“One day when Main Street [North Park Main Street Association] was out there looking at the whole design of [the parklet], I asked them if they could move that 15-minute parking to where the loading zone was in front of my store,” he says. “And they did. They actually were nice enough to put that [request] in for me to the city. So we got three 15-minute parking spots in front of the store.”
Hallaq steadily rings up customers who come in for chips, cigarettes, and a magazine here and there. Some people bypass him altogether and come straight for Najor. Every now and again, after someone has left, he’ll lean over, swear me to secrecy, and whisper details about their magazine preferences.
“I know a lot of things about a lot of people. I just keep it all in here,” he says, tapping his head. “I just put it in a black bag for you. You take it.”
An older woman with large, shiny leaf-shaped earrings comes in and says, “Hey did you buy some cool magazines?”
“Um...” Najor says, stretching out the syllable for a good, long four-count. “What’s the one that I just got in today? Oh, there’s that Time with the new World Trade Center.” “Oh, really?” she says enthusiastically.
“Yeah, it’s right over there,” he points down the middle aisle, and she follows the direction of his finger. “No, keep going,” he says when she stops. “Keep going, keep going. Right there.”
I marvel that he knows what she’s looking for when she doesn’t even seem to know herself. “I just know,” he says. “It’s crazy. There’s a huge list of magazines. As soon as I take it out of the box, I hold it for someone because I know they’ll be in for it shortly. I have a list of phone numbers. People want me to notify them. It’s kind of like a subscription. That way, I keep them instead of [them] subscribing. But they like coming in here because they get to see everything else. It’s just something I kind of figured out I could do as far as a cool method of marketing. You know, I bring them in.”
Another “cool method of marketing” Najor has put to use is to hang signs on the boarded-up windows of former newsstands. That’s what he did when Chula Vista’s Third Avenue Newsstand closed in 2010.
“I actually got a lot of business, just simply putting up a sign directing people to come here,” he says.
Najor works seven days a week, usually from 11:30 a.m. to around 9:00 p.m., although he does open at 6:00 a.m. twice a week to give his partner Gabarra a break from the early hour.
And he pays himself the same hourly amount that he pays his two employees, Hallaq and a man named Kent Snyder. He tells me the amount, but then he says, “Please don’t write that down. No one needs to know that.”
He admits that the business “is not as great as I thought it would be financially, but that goes the same for a lot of businesses in San Diego.” And then he adds, “Basically, I bought myself a job.”
By this point, the sound of the bus has become less frequent and the clientele heavier with food-service workers and bartenders from the nearby restaurants, bars, and coffee shops — plus the occasional pink-haired girl. I’m energized by the grit of this one city corner, a far cry from the suburbs from which I now hail.
I say as much to Najor, who replies, “Same here. I grew up in El Cajon.”
I ask if that’s where he lives now, and he responds, “It’s where my parents are.”
“Do you live with them?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“I’m here seven days a week,” he adds.
I nod, no big deal.
Then he says, “And in my culture, you don’t leave the house until you get married. And I’m not married.”
“I’m the last of four siblings left to get married,” he says. “My mom yells at me every day. She says I just use the house as a hotel.”
Ever get dates? I ask.
“Dates?” he responds.
“No,” he says quickly.
“Um, because I have a girlfriend, and I don’t think she’d like that very much.”
It takes a few minutes, but Najor finally admits that he does occasionally receive offers.
“[Girls] will come here frequently, and I can tell there’s something weird going on,” he says. “And then a few of them might slip their number, and then they’ll come back and go, ‘Hey, why haven’t you hit me up?’ And this and that, but it keeps them coming back, you know?”
Ah, yes. This and that.
“What they don’t teach you in school is the sex factor. One of my professors told me that the sex factor is using that ability to...what am I trying to say here?” he says. “I guess if you have the swagger, or, like, the flirtatious personality, it’s okay to mix it in with the right people.”
He pauses momentarily and then adds, “Sometimes those people come for it. Just to put a smile on their face.”
I nod and turn down the corners of my mouth to imply deep understanding, although I’m feeling a little transparent. Didn’t I, too, trip over myself at his charms and then come back in for a little of this and that? Indeed, I believe I did. But I’m comforted by the assumption that I’m the only one who knows this. I think I’ve played it off rather well.
A petite and tightly muscled young man in a gray tank top and shorts brings a copy of Soap Digest to the counter, interrupting our philosophical moment. It’s at this moment that I realize I’m as taken by the atmosphere of the newsstand as I ever was by Najor himself.
“What’s happening, man?” Najor says, ringing him up.
“It goes,” dude says.
Up until this point, I have mostly just smiled at Najor’s customers and commented briefly when appropriate, but I cannot let this guy go without inquiring as to his relationship to the magazine he’s buying. I’m dying to know if it’s for him or for his mother or for his “sig oth.”
I tell him I’ve never seen anybody buy Soap Digest.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “They exist.”
This tells me nothing.
Najor chimes in. “Is that more of a review of what’s already been on TV or is it a preview of what’s to come?”
“Both,” the guy says. “Usually, someone will randomly text me, because most of my friends still do watch, so they’ll go, ‘Did you hear about this?’ or ‘Do you know what’s about to happen?’ so I usually tell them or they tell me.”
I ask if he has a favorite soap. He immediately says The Young and the Restless, and he got hooked 20-plus years ago because it was the program that was on when his mother put him down for naps. But he watches online and currently all episodes of that program have been blocked from illegal internet viewing.
“Once it gets blocked, the only way I can keep up with it is...” He holds up the magazine. “I would like to say I can ignore it, but I kind of would like to know what’s going on. When you’re raised on it, it’s, like, ‘I want to know what’s happening.’”
He points to a female on the cover.
“I remember her when she was a kid on the show, and then she grew up and she died, and now she’s technically back as a double-gainer.”
Not only do I not have the heart to explain that it’s “doppelganger,” not “double-gainer,” I’m also too fascinated by this young man and his passion for the soap opera to interrupt while he tells an animated tale of how shocking it was to viewers when the dead girl showed up all over again.
“Everyone was, like, ‘How did we not know this?’” he says with exaggerated facial expressions.
Suddenly, perhaps realizing that he has lost himself in the company of others who might not get it, he takes a step back, tones it way down, and says, “But, it is what it is.” And then, waving one hand in the air, heads for the door, saying, “Y’all take care.”
“Have a good weekend, man,” Najor calls after him.