Right before the beginning of the Great Depression, siblings Floyd and Janet (Gerken) Stephan went into business together and opened Peoples News as teenagers.
It's been 85 years, and now the Putnam Street business, with other locations in Parkersburg and Belpre, stocks selections of magazines, newspapers and books along with being a lottery agency and mail service center.
Janet and Floyd were just 17 and 15 years old, respectively, at the time they opened the little cubby of a newsstand between the Hippodrome Theatre and Flanders Insurance Buildings on Jan. 29, 1929.
Submitted by Dan Stephan
Peoples News founder Floyd H. “Shady” Stephan stands alongside customer Chester Hunter Jr., at the store’s location on the corner of Putnam and Third Streets in 1945.
JACKIE RUNION The Marietta Times
Marietta resident Aaron Wallace files paperwork for a Western Union order at Peoples News with manager Sandy Kendal.
"They actually had to have my grandmother sign the paperwork for them because they were not even 18 when they started the place," said Dan Stephan, Floyd's son and the current owner of Peoples News. "They started out just selling papers and quickly evolved from there and became a big distributor of out of town newspapers and magazines."
From peddling newspapers by bicycle during World War II to stocking shelves with the latest paperbook books, Peoples News has lasted almost a century through the country's economic ups and downs and plenty of social changes, Stephan said, by evolving to fit the ever-changing customer.
"Early on the wholesale business was growing, and we ended up being a distributor in the whole state of West Virginia," Stephan said, as Peoples would stock out-of-town newspapers of all sizes.
1929-Floyd and Janet (Gerkin) Stephan open a newsstand between the Flanders Brothers Insurance building and Colony Theatre, selling a small collection of newspapers and magazines
Early 1940s: Peoples News begins distributorship out of Marietta to help meet the demand for foreign newspapers reporting on WWII.
1948-Pair opens a distributorship in Parkersburg for magazines and books.
1958-Dan Stephan, after graduating from college, returns to Marietta to work at the store.
1968-Peoples News opens stores in Parkersburg and Belpre.
Source: Dan Stephan.
That distributorship is what brought the business into good fortune during World War II.
"The war years were good because people wanted information about the war before television, and we sold it," Stephan said. "They only had radio and printed word, so those years were busy."
After the war, Peoples News opened up a distribution center in Parkersburg for national news in 1948, and in 1968 opened the first retail store in Parkersburg.
Charlotte Ritter, Dan's aunt, was only 4 years old when her sister Janet co-founded Peoples News.
"My mother (Laura) was not enthused when the two of them said they wanted to open a store, but my father thought it would be good for Floyd and Janet, and he convinced her," Ritter said. "They bought it with the money they had saved delivering newspapers."
Ritter grew up in the small corner store, where she said she used to reach up and look through the window at the women working the telephone operating station next door and entertain them for hours.
"They would sit me on the counter while they worked and I would talk to everyone who came in," she said.
Ritter recalled starting officially at Peoples News at age 18, where she went from working the cash registers to managing, working there for 52 years before retiring.
"Back then you knew everyone and knew everyone's name," she said. "Now everything is so fast-paced, and you don't have time to stop and smell the roses."
Ritter said it was dedication to her family and the growth of the business that kept her around.
"It was important to me to watch the business grow and keep the relationships I had established with customers," she said. "I stayed until I thought we would not expand anymore, and I let them take the reins."
With her mother Laura doing book-keeping and Janet and Floyd ever-expanding the business into the wholesale market, Ritter said she is proud of the work Stephan has done to keep the place going in the face of new technology and a decline in newspaper sales.
"As far as the retail, it's survived by adapting to people's wants and needs," Stephan said. "We were the first lottery agent in Marietta, and we've evolved to become a bill payment center so people can pay utility bills, and we are a Western Union location too."
Those retail stores officially stacked up to seven locations throughout Belpre, Marietta and Parkersburg, but were reduced in the latter half of the 20th century back down to the four that stand today, with two in Parkersburg, one in Marietta and one in Belpre.
"Right now we're facing the formidable foe in the Internet. The younger generation is getting their news and information off the Internet and they're not as prone to buy magazines and newspapers as they were as the older generations," Stephan said. "That has taken its toll significantly. So we're still always looking for new products and new things to keep people coming in."
The store still stocks paperback books like in did in the 60s and 70s when Janet and Floyd kept a lending library in the stores, but Stephan said today it has become difficult to keep up with major chain bookstores and electronic reading devices.
Today, Sandy Kendal, of Marietta, has been managing Peoples News on Putnam Street for 13 years.
"It's convenient. I don't mind working with customers, and I have the customers I work with regularly and you're glad to see them," she said. "It's a good place to work."
Kendal said these days, with three other women employed at the store, the shop has become less about newspapers and more about modernized draws like the lottery tickets.
"And the first of the month, we process a lot of utility bills," she said. "I think newspaper sales are down because you can get all that on the Internet, but the older generation wants it in hand, so for all that we don't do bad."