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The paperboy business: An accounting system

Some childhood memories are strong – almost indelibly etched into an absorbent young brain needing to be filled, and they’re retained forever.

For me, one of those permanent memories is the experience of being a paperboy in the 1950’s for Houghton’s Daily Mining Gazette. For an 11-year old in 1957, the distraction of TV didn’t yet exist in my household, and computers, video games and cellphones were far off in science fiction future, so having my first real job was the huge focus of my life. I worked as a carrier through 1960 – about four years total.

I’m writing this from sheer recall, which attests to the strength and vividness of these memories, which survive after more than 60 years of other life experiences. But please forgive any minor inaccuracies or misspellings of names, which likely will occur. I’m thankful to Mike Laurin and Steve Wyble – two other childhood friends who also worked at the Gazette and helped fill in my voids of memory, and to my brother, Bob, who had earlier worked the big Gazette route covering East Houghton.

My writings are in installments covering: 1. The Gazette Operation and Production, 2. My Gazette Route – Downtown Houghton, 3. The Paperboy Business, and 4. Houghton Life In the 50’s (a more general look at those wonderful times).

I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse of the Gazette in much simpler times.

Being a paperboy was actually a small business. Meaning you bought the papers at a discount from the Gazette and received your ‘bill’ every Friday. The subscription cost for a delivered paper was 35 cents a week, and it was up to the paperboy to do the collecting from each customer. So only if you collected from everyone, did you make a profit. If you had a lot of ‘no-pays’, there went your profit. I’m sure this arrangement has changed greatly with the advent of on-line billing, and today little if any cash is handled as part of the delivery.

Collection day was always on Friday, which meant slower going. This really cramped my “Pony Express” route which had to be completed by before stores and offices closed at 5 p.m. But the saving grace was that stores stayed open until 9 p.m. on Friday nights, so the pressure for rapid delivery was reduced.

As for the paperboys’ accounting system, each customer had a three-inch-by-six-inch white paper punch card with the collection dates – by week – printed along the edge. I carried a duplicate punchcard for every customer, but mine were blue. My 50 or so cards were all mounted on a large metal ring. I carried a hole puncher tool, and would simply punch out the date — on both our cards — when they paid.

It was common for customers to leave their 35 cents on their card outside their door — maybe hidden under a shoe, or a knick-knack of some kind. But most of the older people would pay face-to-face after I knocked on their door. I believe they looked forward to my visit and would usually want to make some small talk. Perhaps I was the only visitor they’d had that day. So I got to know many of my customers — especially the old-timers. In addition to my ring of cards and a hole puncher, on collection day I would carry a small canvas money bag emblazoned with “Houghton National Bank.” This had been given to me by Mr. (Dick) Rowe, the kindly bank officer, when I’d opened my first savings account there. Later, for money handling, I’d graduate to using a fancy coin changer machine that I could mount on my belt – just like I’d seen bus drivers use in the movies. I got it by mail order via the Wards catalog.

My final stop, at the end of my collection Friday, would be Roy’s Drug Store, on Sheldon just east of Isle Royale St. Roy and Mrs. Monette always wanted change for their cash register, so she had a standing order for me to bring her all my change, which she would count out and convert to “folding money” for me. A real win-win arrangement (And a candy bar was often thrown into the deal).

Of course, a big part of the business income was tips – either spare change or maybe a homemade cookie or piece of candy. Getting two quarters on collection day and being told to “keep the change” was common – an instant 15-cent tip. But tips were especially big at Christmas, when everyone was in the giving spirit – especially so if it was a snowy day and I arrived at their door looking like a blizzard-ized snowman. Dollar bill tips at Christmas were common, and I’d end up with a small stack of them. This was the most cash I’d ever seen. I almost hated to part company with this “wad,” but I eventually deposited it into my savings account – usually after asking my dad if he wanted a loan.

But the time of reckoning came when all paperboys had to settle our bills with the Gazette and pay up. This happened on Saturday mornings by meeting one-on-one with our manager, Lyle Weber. Lyle was a real character and well liked by the boys. When we would meet in his barebones office, he’d usually have a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips and be nursing a thermos of coffee. We’d go over our bill for that week’s papers and pay up with the cash from our Friday collections. Under this arrangement, the Gazette got paid first, so any profit depended on being able to collect from all of my customers. Most were pretty good about paying – if I could catch them at home. But I had to frequently consult my ring of punch cards to keep track of who hadn’t paid yet and do follow-up visits to “chase my profit.”

Editor’s note: Keep an eye out for the rest of the story as we conclude Paperboy Memories in the coming days.

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