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Big Issue Foundation

Far more enriching than any amount of reading – Ben Stock

When I first heard about The Big Issue Foundation’s new campaign StageSwap at the WhatsOnStage Awards I signed up immediately.

When I first heard about The Big Issue Foundation’s new campaign StageSwap at the WhatsOnStage Awards I signed up immediately. It sounded like a great idea and to be honest, if Alison Steadman can do it…..then so can I!

As so often is the case, I signed up, bought a Big Issue on the way out of the theatre and thought no more about it. Between then and when I was contacted about taking part I probably walked passed hundreds of Big Issue sellers and smiled politely saying “no thank you” or just “didn’t hear” them.

When I was contacted it suddenly seemed a much more real proposition. How would it feel to actually stand on the street as a vendor? Many questions flew around my head….would it be patronising to the vendor I was working alongside? Would it be easy to sell the magazine? Would people be able to tell I was a volunteer? Did that matter? Would there be an element of resentment from the vendor…..here is this actor turning up….not being able to stay to for the full amount of time as I had a matinee…..selling a few magazines and then heading off to the theatre……I’m not sure how welcoming I would be in their shoes….

The day arrived and it was a glorious sunny London day – the sort of weather that makes everyone that bit more pleasant and gives everyone that “holiday feeling”. Surely this would help……

I arrived at Equity for my briefing along with Zoe Rainey – it was just the two of us taking part that day. We were taken through a bit of history about The Big Issue and the lives of a typical vendor – how many magazines they sell on average (a surprisingly low 40 per week), the business model for the magazine and vendor (each magazine is purchased for £1.25 by the vendor and sold for £2.50 – that’s an average income of £50 a week), and the support networks provided by The Big Issue Foundation.

Then we hit the streets to meet our vendors. Mine was Gary who has been selling the magazine for the last few years and has a regular pitch outside Leicester Square tube/Wyndhams Theatre (my whole London geography is based around theatres). Gary also works at the magazine distribution point outside M& S on Long Acre. This is where the vendors go to buy their magazines and it is run by Sam and Gary from 7am to 7pm every day of the week.

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I had a chat with Gary about his average day – he does the early morning and early evening commuter times in the main from Monday to Friday and sells above the average number of magazines as well as running the distribution point. It’s a long working week. He was really interested in my life and what had taken me to college and to the theatre and what shows I’d done. We chatted freely and he gave me plenty of tips on how to sell the magazine. Any worries I had about meeting Gary were quickly disappeared.

After our chat we moved further apart so that we could cover as many people as possible – so there I was. On my own with a pile of Big Issues trying to sell them. My aim was 5 in the hour and a half.

After 30 minutes of no bites I had to call in the troops. I texted a friend in a local office who came and bought one and sent a colleague to do the same…..ok – two down, three to go. I then saw a friend coming out of the tube and jumped on him and had whipped £2.50 out of his hand before he knew what was happening. This was not easy….though any sales still count – and I guess friends equalled the regular customers many vendors rely upon to buy their magazines.

Drawing close to the end of my time, I managed to sell one magazine to a complete stranger and that felt GOOOOD! As I handed over to Gary two more friends came and bought from him after seeing my Facebook page, so I kind of managed to meet my target!

So how would I sum up the experience? I’m so glad I did the short time on the ‘front line’. It gives such a different perspective – and a far more enriching experience than any amount of reading will ever give you. The hardest part for me was being ignored. In the industry I work in, it’s all about being noticed and people paying attention and to stand there asking people something and to see that split second where many people choose to ignore you is really hard. Don’t get me wrong, many many people are polite and smile and answer you, but to be looked through feels so discouraging.

I would encourage anyone to sign up to Stage Swap. I see Gary regularly and catch up with him and Sam. I also try my best to make eye contact and respond politely when being offered a magazine by vendors around town.

Thank you Big Issue for this opportunity.

Photos by Andy Commons – www.andycommonsimages.com

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Support your local vendor

Give your vendor a hand up and buy the magazine. Big Issue vendors are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. But, at the same time, they are micro-entrepreneurs. By supporting their business, you can help them overcome homelessness, financial instability and other social disadvantages that hold them back.

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