“I believe that relationships are the key to everything — they way that you get things done. Collaboration. At the end of the day relationships are paramount, they’re what enable us to be successful because you can’t do it alone.”
Paul Sobel has been working at The Original Farmers Market overseeing his newsstand “Sheltams,” which is affectionately named after his two sisters, Shelley and Tamara — for 44 years — ever since he was just 18 and a student at UCLA working in the university’s bookstore back in 1976. He has never been a stranger to the media business, growing up around magazines and visiting the DTLA newsstand his father worked at on weekends when he was a child.
At the height of Sobel’s newsstand-operating business Sobel owned and oversaw seven newsstand locations, including stalls in Calabasas, Encino and Rodeo Drive — but as time went on and publications began to fold, he was forced to reduce operations to just his original domain at the well-known and beloved Original Farmers Market on Third and Fairfax, in mid-city Los Angeles. Now, The Original Farmers Market Stall 818 is his kingdom, and people come to visit from all over the lands of Greater LA.
Pre-pandemic, Sobel’s newsstand would see between 250-300 guests each day — although that number has essentially been cut in half due to enhanced safety restrictions, capacity limits and travel bans which limit tourists visitor-ship to the Farmers Market, Sobel’s newsstand still stands the test of time.
“I met my wife at The Farmers Market. I taught my kids to drive in this parking lot.” Sobel explained his special connection to this historical destination, which played an integral role in the development of the Los Angeles Fairfax neighborhood.
Sobel is a fundamental element of The Original Farmers Market community, overseeing operations at Sheltams and the USPS stall within the newsstand. “My favorite part of working at my stall at the Farmers Market is a combination of the people and the fact that it’s always changing. I have many regular customers who will come back and visit me. I’ve had kids who work for me who grow up and have their own kids and they still come back and visit — the Farmers Market is a very unique place. It really exudes a sense of “community.”
“I’m here pretty much every day at some point, and spend a lot of time here. This is because I believe that relationships are the key to everything — they way that you get things done. Collaboration. At the end of the day relationships are paramount, they’re what enable us to be successful because you can’t do it alone — and the Original Farmers Market is one of the rare pieces of Los Angeles that still exists even after 85 years.”
Even though the Farmers Market area posesses such a rich history, the pandemic has significantly impacted its operations — including Sobel’s business. In fact, the USPS Contract Postal Unit space that he manages out of his newsstand stall is what he says has saved his business from closing during these times of print media hardships, and what has kept Sheltam’s alive these past six months.
Five years ago Sobel began conversations to take over the nearby post office station across the street and bring it into his newsstand in the hopes that it could preserve his business.
“It took several years of coordination to work it out with the USPS leaders. Contract Postal Units, which is technically what we’re considered here at my newsstand, are a few and far between — there are less than 2,000 open right now in the US. They are closing rapidly, and the Farmers Market was anxious about this potential loss, which drives a lot of people to the property. They were enthusiastic about the idea of keeping the post office here and moving it into my stall.”
In September of 2018, we opened up the onsite post office as a contract postal unit stall within our newsstand. Ironically when the pandemic hit, it was because the post office here being considered “essential” is why we got to stay open. Before the pandemic we probably saw 250-300 people each day at our stall — and it’s probably about half that, now.”
“l learned how to run the USPS stall out of his newsstand by observing operations at the nearby USPS hub nearby. I was able to observe and learn how things were done — and a lot of what we learned about running this post office stall we just learned by ‘doing.’ We’re still learning.” He said.
Sobel describes the key role that his newsstand and USPS stall offer to the Fairfax neighborhood and its local residents. “We provide all kinds of services to the people in the community… there’s a rich history to the role that the post office has played in this country. You hear stories of how postal workers deliver more than just mail — they serve as a lifeline.”
“I think the people in this country really value what the post office does — I certainly see the role that our post office stall plays within the Farmers’ Market. People just really love visiting and they appreciate the convenience, the atmosphere. If the post office closed here, we would most definitely close. There’s no way we could stay here.”
Sobel explained that people drive miles from all over the Greater LA area and even Orange County to visit his newsstand because they offer magazines that readers can’t find anywhere else due to his strong relationships with national magazine distributors he’s built and maintained for these past four decades. If he were to lose the USPS arm of his operation, the newsstand would be forced to close down permanently which would disappoint his thousands of loyal customers — some of which have been visiting him for decades.
“Leadership is more than just leading — it’s guiding and setting a good example, making sacrifices, compromising removing your fixed position to make things happen. It’s having a vision and being able to realize it.”
Sobel shared his thoughts on what he’s learned about running his newsstand that will continue to support his business: the ability to be creative and innovate as time progresses and technology changes the way people communicate. For example, Sobel himself created a visual stamp display system on an iPad outside his stall allowing customers to preview the stamp designs available — it’s the first of its kind. It’s updated in real time and lets guests see what stamps are available for purchase before stepping up to the window — something that normally wouldn’t be offered at a traditional USPS mailing center.
“The USPS creates these terrific and unique stamps memorializing people and honoring them. People come in and are blown away by how many stamps there are to choose from. I like to think that we enhance the experience — the USPS itself isn’t able to innovate creatively because they’re spending so much time working on staying in business and getting the mail out. We came up with a way to rig an iPad to display rotating images of all the stamps.”
Sobel appreciates the history and significance of The Original Farmers Market and aims to honor those who have contributed to its legacy. He uses thoughtful methods to celebrate talented people — such as displaying the USPS’ most artistic stamps at his stall.
“Right now there are 18 different styles of stamps rotating through — everything from artists to Bugs Bunny and Sesame Street, the Harlem Renaissance, “Love” stamps, heart stamps, flowers, animals, the moon landing — and when somebody walks up they can stand there and see all the stamps that we on hand. They do some beautiful things on the stamps.”
Sobel’s newsstand and USPS stall will continue to innovate and serve the local Fairfax and Farmers Market community, as well those who come to visit from all over Greater Los Angeles.
“I think that with the proper leadership, the post office can continue to thrive in this country.” Sobel shared. Just as the Original Farmers Market has stood the test of time, so will Sobel’s legacy.
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