Employees of Globe News were used to a colorful crowd slipping inside the small one-story building on the edge of downtown, right by the Pierce Elevated and not far from the Greyhound bus station. Everyone from well-heeled professionals on lunch breaks to homeless people getting out of the rain browsed the Globe's 2,000 magazine titles and plethora of out-of-town newspapers.
So clerks hardly noticed when a man who was missing both legs rolled into the shop in a wheelchair.
The guy seemed to know what he wanted. He wheeled himself straight to the back, where owner Blake Lewis charged a dollar just to browse the newsstand's adult section, complete with old standbys like Playboy and Penthouse, and more specialized publications such as Plumpers.
But what the handicapped man didn't know was that hidden cameras in the back room monitored the, uh, unusual activity that often accompanies the selling of adult magazines. He didn't know the employees could see him pulling publications off the racks and tucking them under his rear end.
"He rolled out, and one of the staff stopped him and said, 'Excuse me,'" recalls Lewis. The employee "started pulling magazines out from under the man," he says. "And do you know what they were? Leg Show, Leg Ho -- nothing but leg magazines."
Lewis shakes his head ruefully as he recalls the story, but he's quick to show he doesn't pass judgment. "You know, I can see why he would have wanted those, but I really would have preferred that he would have bought them."
Globe News closed May 31 because of a staggering drop in sales over the past few years. The shutdown signaled the passage of another era, a pre-Internet period when newsstands were one of the few sources of out-of-state information, a time when publications such as The New Yorker and Leg Show could sit proudly side by side on the same rack.
Before it was the Globe, and before Blake Lewis came along, the tiny shop at 809 Pierce was known as World News. Longtime Houston character Guy Milburn ran it. The spirit of the Globe was born out of this man, who loved gambling, horse racing and hard drinking.
"He was a wonderful fellow, and a joy to be around," says attorney Tom Alexander, who represented Milburn on gambling charges several decades ago. "He looked like the kind of guy who'd lived in a pool room all his life."
In the '50s and '60s, Milburn ran the newsstand out of a storefront on Texas Avenue at La Branch, but eventually sold that property and moved to the Pierce location in the '70s.
According to Alexander, Milburn personally "abhorred" the dirty magazines that made him much of his money, but he saw nothing morally wrong with selling them.
"As far as I'm concerned, if people want to buy pictures of hippopotamuses fornicating, there ought to be a place where they can buy pictures of hippopotamuses fornicating," rationalizes the attorney.
But it wasn't the adult magazines Milburn cared so much about. It was the racing forms and tip sheets for football games and other sports that he loved. Known to double as a bookie from time to time, Milburn avoided jail when Alexander convinced the trial judge, a poker buddy, to reduce the bookmaking charge to simple gaming. Milburn only had to pay a fine.
Alexander says Milburn liked to drink anything that wasn't Listerine -- and he happily smoked cigarettes even after doctors told him he had emphysema.
"He always looked like we were about to have a funeral for him," recalls Alexander.
The funeral finally came in the late '80s. Milburn's son, who no longer lives in Houston, took over the business for a short while. In 1990, Blake Lewis, a marketing student at the University of Houston, needed a part-time job. He happened to see a sign on campus that said the World was looking for help. The hours fit his schedule.
"It was my BS job while I was in school," says Lewis. But the BS job turned into something bigger when Lewis, a fast-talking, ambitious young man, decided to buy the property in 1994.
As a 20-year-old, Lewis was deemed too young to get a Small Business Administration loan. Instead, he borrowed from his parents and even hired them as part-time workers at the store. Lewis changed the name to the Globe, retiled the place, moved the adult section to the back and tried to entice new customers.
"I redid the place, tried to make it look nice, more woman-friendly," says Lewis. He sold cigarettes and cigars as well.
The Globe carried vast selections of magazines for every niche interest. Bizarre, a UK publication, was filled with nothing put pictures of strange events (a shark being eaten by another shark, for instance). Lapidary Journal was all about gemstones, and Amusement Business specifically targeted carnival people. Lewis divided the store into sections: cars, guns, hunting and fishing, travel, foreign and so on. There were magazines in German, French and Spanish. And of course there was the fabled adult section in the back, which Lewis estimates made up about 60 percent of his profit.
"Sure, it smelled of old porn," says one longtime customer who prefers to remain anonymous. "But it was the only place to reliably find Wings and 2600, neither of which are porno magazines, by the way." (For the record, Wings is about old airplanes, and 2600 delves into computer hacking).
Despite his attempts to make the place more comfortable for women (and despite the fact that his mom worked at the shop), Lewis figures men made up 99 percent of his customers. There was the guy reported to be a federal judge who bought bondage magazines. A gay man who announced aloud at the register -- as he purchased a stack of homosexual porn -- that he had just come out of the closet. And Lewis can't forget the gentleman who insisted on tipping him a quarter with every sale and wishing him happy Hanukkah no matter what time of year it was.
The shop had its stellar moments. It got one of the first shipments of the People magazine issue that honored Latina superstar Selena shortly after her murder. A customer called a local Spanish-language radio station, which announced that the newsstand had a huge supply of the magazine.
By mid-morning, the line at the cash register was 20 deep and the store had run out of change. Lewis estimates he sold about $8,000 worth of People that day. Perhaps celebrity death was a strange blessing, because the store had similar success with magazines that celebrated Princess Diana.
Constant construction near the store cut into some of the customer base, although Lewis says it was the growth of the Internet and the rising cost of magazines that forced him to close. If people were moving to Kansas City and wanted information on jobs and housing, they no longer needed to drive to the Globe to buy The Kansas City Star. They just logged on instead. Porn was cheaper on the Web too, and more anonymous. Lewis estimates that in 1995 he did $700,000 worth of magazine sales, but by 2001 the number had fallen to $420,000 -- and that was with the rising cost of magazines.
Lewis adds that the place could have used more loyal customers, not just browsers. Despite signs warning that reading was not allowed, Lewis says, it was common for people to wander around for an hour but not spend a dime.
"I wasn't federally funded by the government to run a public library," he says.
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Lewis notes that newsstands, once the staple of a dynamic downtown, are dying out all over the region. Some have morphed into smoke shops with a small adult section or what he calls the "glorified grocery store racks" of the SuperStand chain. Few are left that cover the minutia of life like the Globe did.
The building that once hosted Milburn's gambling sideline will now turn to more traditional gaming: pool, air hockey and the big-screen televisions of a sports bar. Lewis plans to turn the place into The G.R.A.B. (game room and bar). He hopes to have it open around the end of the year.
On the last day for the newsstand, Lewis gathered with friends and a few longtime customers to drink Coronas and toast the Globe good-bye. He admits he'll miss the store, although he won't miss having to deal with all those stacks of publications.
"You know, it's a funny thing," says Lewis. "I'm really not much of a magazine reader."