There are lots of originals who sell Real Change, and while Richard Smith is one in that sense of the word, he’s also an actual original — Smith started selling the paper at its founding in 1994.
After coming out from Indiana to work a well-paying job as an electrician, he got laid off. He found more work, but was laid off again. After that, Smith ended up on the street, where he encountered a vendor selling Real Change downtown. That vendor passed him a flyer with information about how to sign up, and the rest is history.
Smith is something of a street paper specialist. He moved on from Real Change to sell in Portland (at Street Roots, or the Burnside Cadillac, as it was then known), Cincinnati, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland again and Seattle for a second time somewhere along the way. Smith said that he sold the Street Roots paper for nine years and was even there to help name it when it launched. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s sold a paper, pretty much. This is his third stint at Real Change, and he’s not planning on going anywhere else.
“I hit quite a few street papers, but I kept thinking about Real Change, because I started there,” Smith said. He was doing quite well selling a paper down in California but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he had to get back to Seattle.
“I like Timothy Harris. I have a lot of respect for him, and I felt like I betrayed him by leaving. I had that in my head,” Smith said. Harris, who founded Real Change in 1994, had moved on by the time Smith got back. However, everything he liked about Real Change was still there.
“I’m well happy, so I’m going to stay,” he said.
Ironically, when he first tried selling the paper, he couldn’t get into it. Fortunately, a woman who worked in the Real Change office found him flying a sign somewhere downtown and convinced him to give it another chance.
“She made sure that I got my rear back in there, and I was glad that she did, because I could see [by] changing locations that working downtown wasn’t working,” Smith said.
When Real Change was still new, selling copies was “a struggle,” he said, “but they were moving after people learned.”
Most of the clientele back then was Microsoft money, he said, not unlike the current crop of well-off tech workers. The fact that Microsoft millionaires bought papers surprised him back then, because “we thought they would just keep the money for themselves,” he said.
But share they did: Smith remembered one woman pulling up on him in a Lamborghini, asking him about the paper and buying one for $100.
“‘I ain’t trying to be rude,’” Smith remembers the woman saying, “‘but I just want to show you that I have been in your situation.’”
One thing that hasn’t changed about selling Real Change, he said, are those types of serendipitous encounters. He’s currently in transitional housing in SODO, and he’s working on getting a voucher for permanent housing, thanks to a chance meeting with a former customer.
“A lady approached me that remembered me from selling the paper before,” Smith said. She told him, he said, “‘We have a housing project. I am in charge, so you come down and fill out an application.’”
During his first run with Real Change, he found success by moving to locations further afield from downtown. These days, Smith is dead set on his current selling spot: the Broadway Bank of America.
“Bank of America — they treat me good,” Smith said. “If it rains, the manager tells me, ‘Go underneath the awning and stay dry.’”
While some vendors compete for prime spots, he’s actually done the opposite. Smith and his buddy Donald, who he’s known for 17 years now, set up right across the street from each other. Smith gets there a little earlier to catch the morning crowd, and Donald is usually there until after the office workers start heading home. For most of the day, though, they’re selling just about side by side. And sales are good; Smith and Donald each go through lots of papers every week.
While Donald deserves his own day in the spotlight, suffice to say they’re an iconic duo. Donald’s big, bright smile is like a lighthouse beacon in front of Jai Thai, and Smith’s colorful hats and ceaselessly positive attitude have attracted plenty of regulars after just a year back.
The day of his interview, Smith was sporting a purple hat with multicolored outlines of three dolphins and a smattering of stars. He’s also been known to wear hats with funny messages on them, like “I don’t want to grow up.” However, the most popular one he’s got is a beanie with Mickey Mouse on it, which is why, after seeing last week’s Donald Duck-themed cover, he is patiently waiting for a paper with Mickey on it.
While Smith and Donald’s arrangement is a bit unique, this is actually not the first time Smith has sold using the buddy system. Back in the day, he sold in the University District across from another vendor, who had the Bartell Drugs on 45th and University Avenue.
That vendor, Smith remembered, was also a street paper veteran who gave him some portentous words of wisdom.
Smith recalls his words: “You will be back here to Real Change, because Real Change is in your heart, like mine.”
Richard Smith sells Real Change outside the Bank of America in Capitol Hill. His badge number for Venmo payments is 14565.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2022 issue.