For 73-year-old Louis Antonaccio, it never gets old to watch people walk into a tree.
They hit the tree, of course, because they are walking and texting. For them, life happens on a small wireless device.
For Antonaccio, it’s more about the ink on his fingers and the larger-than-life pictures that surround him at the World Newsstand in Laguna Beach.
Raised in New York City, Antonaccio has the classic street merchant demeanor. He’ll size you up before you say a word, arching an eyebrow and squinting as you talk.
For the past 13 years, he’s been tending the newsstand on Ocean Avenue for owner Heidi Miller, whose other business, Tight Assets, is just around the corner.
Last year, Miller partnered with Visit Laguna, the city’s official tourist arm, which shares space at the newsstand for its maps and guides.
On Sunday, Joe Chiquete was manning the tourist side of the narrow stand. Chiquete is a retired public works employee for the city, where he worked for 30 years.
Between Chiquete and Antonaccio, the stories never end. They are like the beach waves within earshot, keeping things lively and interesting.
It doesn’t matter what the topic is, really. It could be about motorcycles, family or tourists.
“The kids are the funny ones,” Chiquete said. “I’ve heard it a number of times: ‘Are these free?’
“They’ll ask for permission, ‘Is it OK if I just look?’ ”
I ask if people ever overstay their welcome by trying to read the whole magazine.
Antonaccio chimes in, taking his turn in the conversation.
“I walk over to them and ask if they have a library card,” he said, his N.Y. sarcasm in full bloom.
There is a code to a newsstand conversation, perhaps similar to a barber shop. You never start out too strong or too soft. Work into things. Let the conversation form and meander. Don’t rush to fill every void. Listen. Nod. Smile.
Admittedly, it can be uncomfortable. In this day and age, where every online interest and post is well-defined, this approach takes more imagination.
It’s easier to grab a paper or magazine and quickly leave. It’s much harder to actually strike up a conversation with a stranger and hang out — to engage for no real reason other than to socialize face-to-face.
“You’re not going to find any other place like this,” Antonaccio said. “It’s a social club at the same time.”
Like most good stands, it usually opens early, especially during the summer. During winter, there are more modest hours. But that still means people are generally standing around sipping coffee and catching up on the gaps of life not filled with Internet headlines.
According to Antonaccio, there’s still a healthy appetite for hardcopy news.
“People say print is going away but we can’t get enough newspapers,” he said. “People ask, ‘Why can’t you get the papers?’
“Well, I sold it.
“They say, ‘Where can I get one?’
“I don’t know anymore!”
He says the punch line with his still-strong N.Y. accent, the emphasis coming from passion and frustration.
A reader himself, it’s as if the world doesn’t make sense anymore.
For Miller’s part, it’s this very conundrum that keeps the stand open. She points out that teenagers have complained to her that they’re losing their eyesight because of smart phones.
The daughter of a U.C. Berkeley professor, Miller shakes her head at the thought of it.
“I don’t want the young people to forget what a newsstand is,” she said.
Despite the good intentions, Miller admitted the stand doesn’t make much money. The partnership with Visit Laguna helps, but she worries that like the nearby movie theater, someday it may just fade away.
People will bemoan the loss of the “good ol’ days” but by then it will be too late, she said.
Antonaccio, at his age, knows there will always be something new, but it’s not always better.
“Things have changed,” he said. “This is not the same world I grew up in.”
He hesitates and points: “Do you know how many people I’ve seen walk into that tree?”
As if on cue, a young man with a cell phone walks by and skirts the tree trunk at the last moment.
Antonaccio rolls his eyes and starts to straighten magazines out of habit.
He touches them as if for meaning.