Extra, extra: shock as historic kiosk remains afloat in 21st century London. Haines of Sloane Square is not a bog-standard roadside shack flogging Union Jack-themed tat. It proudly remains an old-school newsagent. The daily rags are offered here, despite a plummeting demand for physical papers amid the growing digitisation of news. It also claims to be the oldest news kiosk still trading in London.
“Even as a grown-up, working in the City, I still had to do Saturday shifts here”
Up and running by 1892, the business once comprised six separate boxes dotted around the Square, also offering deliveries right across Chelsea. Today, its HQ is a sleek, Thomas Heatherwick-designed structure. Mother-and-son duo Sarah and Alex are the managers here. “I’m very slowly taking the kiosk over,” Alex tells us. “Mum’s passionate about certain things and finds this hard to let go.”
“I now have a bus pass which I would like to be using more,” admits Sarah. “Working together can be frustrating for both of us!” The business was set up by her grandfather and has never left the bloodline. A family tradition has seen each child put to work here as soon as they’re old enough to count coins. “Even as a grown-up, working in the City, I still had to do Saturday shifts here,” says Sarah.
By 2019, the delivery rounds are long gone (“no one in Chelsea wants their child delivering papers”), and so too is a second nearby kiosk which once bore the Haines name in the heady 1990s. But the business soldiers on, even as news kiosks shut up shop all over the city. The owners’ secret? As well as the obvious hard work — days that start at 3am — it’s all about…. well… vegan crisps.
Or rather, it’s a case of giving the punters what they want. “If we get asked for something more than once, we’ll try it,” says Alex. When KitKats were first sold here, decades ago, it was a controversial ‘Judas’ moment. But diversification has been key to Haines’ survival, whether with cigarettes, vegan food, or anything else.
Which raises the question of whether anybody cares about newspapers anymore. Haines retains its core product for some reason — but why? Alex and Sarah say that Sloane Square benefits from a clientele which still privileges words-on-paper. These are the broadsheet-buyers.
“Instagram is a complete waste of time. I just want a magazine in bed.”
We query the appeal of physical media with those seen rifling through papers and mags on the Haines shelves. “I don’t want to be like the millions on the bus reading their bloody newspaper online. It really hacks me off,” says Christina, a local, who’s been coming here for ten years. “Instagram is a complete waste of time. I just want a magazine in bed.”
“I will always buy a paper,” says a conflicted Jonathan. “But when you add it up every day — plus my getting carried away with Sunday editions — it is a lot of money. You could buy a new suit with that.”
“I don’t need broadband because I’m not the right age,” says Rose. “It’s for young people, all this Tinder and whatever they’re called.” She comes by on Tuesdays to buy a Daily Mail, despite being vocally anti-Brexit. “It’s for the health section,” she explains. “I don’t read the stupid other things.”
“Prince Charles’s personal trainer turned up here one day with 24 long-stem roses and asked me to dinner"
Chelsea being Chelsea, Haines is no stranger to a distinguished customer, although most of these visits are treated with discretion. “I do remember Boris Johnson coming round,” Sarah reveals. “Not as a politician, but when he was a rep for the Spectator. He’d be on a bike, a mass of blond hair all over the place, piling up copies of the magazine even though I told him I didn’t want any more.”
And a young Diana Spencer is counted among a number of royal visitors. “You know, I had a missed opportunity in my 20s,” Sarah recalls. “Prince Charles’s personal trainer turned up here one day with 24 long-stem roses and asked me to dinner. My father turned around and said no. Afterwards, he said to me, ‘you are from a different class and you need to remember that’.”
"Kids try to tip you, because they see their parents do it”
Haines is a true public forum; anyone comes here. Builders, wealthy locals, schoolchildren, and tourists show up. Manning the fort is Pete, who proves an octopus of sorts. A limb extends to reach a high-up crisp packet; another dishes out change; somehow a telephone is picked up at the same time. The caller wants to know, are there any Russian papers in stock, as they’re the crew-member responsible for dressing the set of the new James Bond film?
“Some treat us a bit like a bar,” says Pete — hinting at both the kiosk’s social function as well as the queue-related arguments that unfold here. The person who reaches the counter first gets priority, unless the next one’s got the exact change. A chatty regular has to be kept chatting, but not to the detriment of other custom. It’s complex — and if tourists get involved, it all goes out the window.
“This job is my social project,” Pete jokes. His other work sees him confined to a computer at home and without the chance to talk to as many people as he would like. “Here, it’s interesting watching people’s behaviour. Like the kids who try to tip you, because they see their parents do it.”
"I’ve been desperate for cigarette rolling papers for hours"
The business owes some of its renown to its unusual, tiered shell designed by Thomas Heatherwick; the man behind the New Routemaster bus and cancelled Garden Bridge. “People come up and take photos,” says Alex. “I have a friend who says it actually came up in their university lecture once.”
But not everyone visits the kiosk for reasons of sightseeing. “Why should we care about its history?” asks Nadhi from India, now based in the US. “I’ve been part of British imperial history for a long time. That said, I am glad the kiosk was here. I’ve been desperate for cigarette rolling papers for hours.”
The fags fly off the shelves. But we fail to find any Young People browsing the papers. For many Londoners, it seems that paying for news — in the street or anywhere else — has no relevance at all.
“All media is propaganda: it’s bullshit, isn’t it?” asks Romeo, a crane slinger who stops by every day. “It’s just whatever they want to hypnotise you with”. His cynicism for mainstream news is shared by another regular, John. “When my generation dies out, papers will have a hard time,” he says. “But there will always a place for books and satiricals. I bought Private Eye today because it’s the only thing that tells the truth.”
"If a Tesco opens next door, maybe the kiosk ends up flipping pancakes or something."
The plight of tabloids and broadsheets is well known by now; enough ink has been spilled over falling newspaper circulation. Alex is not certain the old family business will outlast his generation. “Am I adamant my daughter takes over the kiosk one day? No. I’d like her to make a slightly better living.”
And whether it’s the price of parking, plans for developing the Square, or even a new tube station nearby at Battersea, Sarah adds that there are myriad modern threats to the business. “All those things take our future out of our hands,” she reckons. “But there will be a lot of conversation before we ever jack it in. If a Tesco opens next door, maybe the kiosk ends up flipping pancakes or something.”
“As long as the business is still making some money, we’ll still be here,” Alex says with a smile.