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Dying call of an endangered species – the 'Standard' vendor

The traditional street-corner cry of 'Staaan-D'd' is being silenced. Matthew Bell reports

His voice is just the same, piercing the air with its plangent sing-song call – "Staaan-D'd". After 30 years it's a familiar cry for the hundreds of commuters who pass through this central London train station every evening. But the patter has changed. Now Phil – not his real name, as he has asked for anonymity – no longer tells readers to buy their Evening Standard here. Instead he's got a new line – "take one, get one free".

And take them they do. Dozens of the now-free paper are snatched from Phil's blue tin stall during the time we spend discussing his life as one of London's endangered landmarks: the street corner newspaper vendor. We talk about the changes he has seen: the rival papers that have come and gone; the increase in stress among commuters; and his feeling that the country has gone to the dogs. But the most significant change happened suddenly last month when the Standard cut its cover price to nothing.

Before then, when the price was 50p, he could expect to sell 190 copies of the Evening Standard. On a good day he might shift 210. The first he heard the paper was going free came from a customer. Since then his life has changed completely.

"It used to be a social job," he says, "But it's not now. Of course, we try to be friendly but at the same time we have to hand the papers out as quickly as we can. Now we get thousands of papers and have to hand them all out by the end of our shift – we can't leave until they've all gone – so it's not as social and friendly as it used to be."

With no formal transaction, he finds customers are less likely to stop to banter now. "It's murder giving them away. They're a different type of customer. You try to laugh with the new ones but they haven't got a sense of humour."

John, another vendor, says: "Before, you would have all your regular customers. I got to know a lot of them quite well. I'd have about 100 people who I would count as friends. I don't get to speak to them at all any more."

The Standard's distribution system began to change before the cover price was dropped last month. In February, a month after the paper was sold to Alexander Lebedev, vendors ceased to be employed directly by the paper, their contracts outsourced to a logistics company called The Network. This ended the arrangement of vendors working on commission: many would take 12.5p for every 50p paper they sold.

It also all but ended the tradition of privately owned pitches, which were once fiercely fought over, and could fetch thousands of pounds when sold. Some, mostly outside mainline train stations, would be handed down from one generation to the next. Now there are scarcely any. And many Network pitches have been downsized, often now just a pile of papers by a Tube station entrance. "At our old stands, we used to have chairs and a table," says Phil, "Now we have to stand which is a problem for some of the older vendors. They can't stand six hours a day."

A former circulation manager at the Evening Standard sums up the paper's 1950s heyday: "There were plenty of vendors but we needed more." During the Epsom races, vendors would queue up outside the paper's offices in Shoe Lane for the chance to be sent to that plum gig. Back then, the job employed many of London's waifs and strays. "They could each all tell a story. They were a scruffy lot. Especially Mr Halls, he was a mess, but he was very well spoken and had copperplate handwriting, so he would frequently apply to very senior jobs and be called for interview. But then they would see him and he would come back to us."

Now there are fewer vendors than ever. This time last year, outlets were slashed by 40 per cent, and with the price drop they have been reduced again. This is causing problems for some regular readers. "Because it's free everyone wants one," says Phil, "The people who actually want the paper don't get it and they miss out. You'd be surprised how many people say they wish it was still paid for, but I don't think they'll go back now."

Across London, the mood of vendors approached by The Independent on Sunday was bleak. There have been several rounds of redundancies, with the workforce down from 350 to under 300, while the vans have been cut from 100 to 30. And because vendors are no longer responsible for handling money, their pay is to be cut by a quarter from January, going down from £7.50 or £8 per hour to £6. Some recent recruits have already had their pay cut, but cannot afford to leave. "It's not like there are plenty of other jobs out there," says one. Some older workers feel it is a change too far, and will give up in the new year. But for the few, like Phil, for whom selling the Standard has been their lives, there is no option but to go on. "I'd go mad if I lost this. I wouldn't know what to do."