The games we play change over time. I wonder if my favorite magazine game has gone the way of stickball and “kick the can.”

When I worked at Ziff-Davis in the 1980’s I was fortunate enough to be placed in a “loop course” type of specialized circulation class taught by the VP of Circulation and one of the industry’s most outrageous old school characters, Larry Sporn. Larry taught us a simple little game called “newsstand shuffle.” Basically, all you had to do was go to a newsstand, browse the magazines, and accidentally place your companies’ titles on top of your competitors’ magazines. The trick was to make sure you didn’t get caught by the newsstand manager but this wasn’t very difficult. It was a cheap thrill.

Where the game really got going, though, was the classic Mother of All Newsstands, that being the one at the edge of Grand Central Station, in the PanAm building (now MetLife). Here was a newsstand in the hub of The Great Commute—108,000 people were estimated to be streaming through the building each day, according to an article in the NY Times on June 18, 1984. At that point in time, the newsstand stocked more than 2,000 titles and sold 10,000 copies of magazines per week.

But volume was just half the story. This newsstand was smack in the middle of the magazine publishing AND ad agency capital of the world. Beyond just selling copies, it was critical that the hundreds of media buyers streaming by each day saw your title prominently displayed.

Since so many magazine professionals walked through the station daily, Newsstand Shuffle became a very lively game. If you stood and watched closely you could see people picking up an issue (or four), casually glance over their shoulder at the counter and then quickly shuffle the magazines to their favor. Sometimes competitors would be in the PanAm at the same time seeing who was willing to take a later train and get the last laugh.

Of course the next day, someone else had either fixed the stack or buried your magazine under Civil War News or something. So to win we had to compete almost every day.

Is anyone still playing?

Photo credit: Martin Green

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