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The Pretzel War on Jamieson Avenue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2010 - By last Tuesday it was clear that the Pretzel War was taking a toll on Jamieson Avenue. For most of the day, there were no vendors selling "sticks" in the median. No fresh Gus' pretzels delivered right to your car window -- 50 cents or $1 each, depending on the vendor -- as drivers pulled up to the stop signs at the Fyler intersection or at Pernod, a few blocks down.

The pretzel vendors, their signs and their coolers have been "officially" evicted from the median that separates the northbound and southbound lanes, a prime spot that for years has lured pretzel peddlers wanting to catch drivers on both sides of the street.

No more, say city officials, who the week before told vendor John Galvin to cease and desist because that stretch of Jamieson is not a vending zone and vending from the right-of-way is both illegal and unsafe.

So at 9:30 a.m., Galvin stood pretzel-less at the intersection of Jamieson and Pernod, where he and his brother Reuben usually sell the fresh sticks they buy several times a day from the landmark pretzel bakery at Arsenal Street and Lemp Avenue. Galvin said he feared being arrested if he tried to sell pretzels, while up the street another vendor had just set up shop: Gus’ pretzels at the Galvins' sales price, $1 each or $5 for 6; even his sign was similar.

"I don't understand why somebody else can sell, and I can't," Galvin said. "Apparently, there's vending for some people and not for other people, and we don't know what the criteria are. Why are the laws enforced on some, and not on others?"

The Galvins called the ward's alderman and the Street Department to complain, and later in the day the competitor was gone and the entire street was once again a pretzel-free zone.

And so it went on this Tuesday, which would have been a great day for pretzel-selling. The morning was bright and sunny and rain-free, following a particularly dreary Monday, which Gus' website calls the saddest day of the week anyway -- because that's when the pretzel bakery is closed.

The decades-old tradition of pretzel vending on this well-traveled street in South St. Louis is at risk, say the Galvins who question why it ever became an issue at all.

Ward 23 Alderman Joe Vaccaro said he inherited the situation when he took office in April 2009, and he has tried to find a solution but must work within the city’s laws. He says it is unfortunate, not only for the Galvins but also for an 87-year-old pretzel vendor who has been a fixture at Jamieson and Fyler for nearly 30 years.

"There are a lot of losers in this," Vaccaro said. "It's also unfortunate for all the people who drive down the street and enjoyed getting the pretzels."

The battle continues

This is a little story about St. Louis and pretzels and how a longstanding tradition can sneak under the radar of laws and rules and regulations until it gets a push into the daylight -- and now what are we going to do?

Even if the vendors and the city somehow reach agreement, it won't bring world peace, fix the nation's financial mess or stop the oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. But it could preserve a neighborhood tradition and the livelihood of vendors who, after all, sell pretzels to pay their bills.

For now, the Pretzel War has reached a stalemate.

As is the case with most skirmishes, this one has its share of allies and critics, and more twists than a fresh-baked Gus’ you-know-what.

The Galvin brothers say they’ve been treated unfairly, when all they ever tried to do was sell pretzels in an efficient and business-like way.

Todd Waelterman, the city’s director of streets, insists that his department acted after receiving complaints from the public about the vendors on Jamieson -- that they were obstructing traffic and some were “dirty and barefoot.” Vaccaro and Waelterman say they have nothing against the Galvins or the other pretzel peddlers, for that matter, but are simply following the rules. Both say that any complaints about “unkempt” peddlers were aimed at transient vendors who set up on the street and not against the Galvins.

The recent crackdown on Jamieson is, in fact, the second battle of an ongoing war.

John Galvin, 48, first started selling pretzels on Jamieson in 2003 and was eventually joined by Reuben, 40. Their mother Marian Brickner, 73, also helps out, and selling pretzels has become the family business. Brickner is also a photographer whose pictures of bonobos have been published in a variety of publications, including the St. Louis Beacon.

Reuben Galvin talks about the business with pride, pointing out that they are independent entrepreneurs trying to make a living in a time-honored St. Louis way. He says they are an incorporated business with state retail licenses for their spots on Jamieson and, unlike some street vendors, they pay FICA, plus state and city earnings taxes.

He says they have taken pretzel vending to the next level: They have neat, professional-looking signs that advertise their prices. They wear plastic gloves when handling the pretzels and had a special umbrella designed to shelter their wares from the weather. He make runs to Gus’ bakery several times a day so their pretzels are always fresh, and they work efficiently so they don’t hold up traffic in the median.

But growing the business may have, in fact, triggered its end. While a "professional" presence on the median brought more sales, it may have also spurred complaints to the city, which put them out of business once before.

The 'old guy' and 'the poachers'

All parties suspect that some of the complaints were driven by concerns of residents that Joe, the neighorhood fixture who still sells his sticks for 50 cents each, was being forced out by the new entrepreneurs.

The Beacon caught up with Joe who was selling pretzels at his usual spot at Jamieson and Fyler on Saturday morning. He was reluctant to talk because he says he has always avoided publicity and asked that his last name not be used: All he wants to do is quietly sell his pretzels. He acknowledged that the current brouhaha may have been stirred by his many friends in the neighborhood who were trying to protect his interests.

“I told them not to call the city,’’ he said. “People think they’re trying to help, but I told them just don’t buy from the other people if you don’t want to. They were trying to take my side, and it has just caused trouble.”

Joe said he’s been selling at the spot for 28 years but has cut back to a few hours a week.

The Galvins insist that they always respected Joe and never sold at his corner, even when he wasn’t there. But when they noticed other vendors -- or “poachers” as they refer to them -- selling at the old gentleman’s spot, they also started selling there, now taking two spots on the street.

Sometimes, the Galvins say, passersby would yell threats at them. About the same time, complaints began to float in to the city.

The Galvins say they were informed by the city in early 2009 that pretzel-peddling on Jamieson was illegal. They stopped selling on the street for a while and opened a little pretzel shop on Manchester Road. But sales volume at the store never matched the capacity on the street, and when the Galvins saw other vendors again selling pretzels on Jamieson they decided to give it another shot.

Vaccaro, who had just been elected, said he tried to resolve the issue and arranged a meeting with the Lindenwood Park Neighborhood Association.

Doug Dick, president of the neighborhood association, concurs that after hearing a presentation by the Galvins in May 2009, his group took the position that they would not oppose pretzel sales on Jamieson, as long as all health and city ordinances are adhered to -- and that no one peddles in nearby Lindenwood Park.

"The neighborhood association, I think, is kind of ambivalent about it," Dick said.

He said no one has ever complained to him about the vendors.

"There was some controversy between the vendors, and we didn't get involved with that,'' he added. "But I think it complicated the situation. I think if it had been the one person who had been doing it for many, many years, there wouldn't have an issue."

After the neighborhood association signed off, Vaccaro said he thought the situation was settled, and the Galvins returned to Jamieson.

Round two

Waelterman said he has nothing against the pretzel vendors, but the street department was forced to take action again after getting renewed complaints about vendors selling in the right-of-way.

"The complaints were that people were gathering in the middle of the corner, and the visibility was low," he said. "There has been some bantering back and forth between the neighborhood and the pretzel guys, but ultimately no rules and laws have been changed to allow these vendors to be out on these corners in this area."

Waelterman said that legally speaking the only place the city allows street peddling is in the downtown vending districts -- that buying a vending license doesn't give a vendor permission to sell wherever he or she wants.

To make selling legal on Jamieson, the city would have to establish it as a vending zone, but even that wouldn't allow selling in the median.

"The island is fairly narrow, only 3 feet wide, so it would take a lot for us to approve something like that," Waelterman said.

He said that it is up to Vaccaro and the board of aldermen to create a vending zone but warned that it could open the door to vendors of all types.

"It's very possible you could have guys selling flowers, candy, pretzels, all the way up and down Jamieson. That's something the neighborhood and alderman need to weigh in on," Waelterman said.

And that's the rub, says Vaccaro.

“I have been told that I have two choices: Either have nobody out there or make it a vending zone and open it to everything,’’ he said. “If your alderman opened your street to people pushing hot dog carts and pretzels and hawking t-shirts and that kind of stuff you probably wouldn’t say, ‘That’s OK, I don’t mind.’ And that’s where I’m at.’’

Vaccaro says he isn't out to get the vendors, and he has bought pretzels on the street himself. In fact, he grew up in the neighborhood with Gus Koebbe Jr., the third-generation owner of the pretzel bakery.

But Vaccaro says residents have made it clear they would not favor a vending zone.

"I have been told in no uncertain terms they do not want it turned into a circus down there," he said.

Dick said the neighborhood association would also have reservations about such a zone.

"If it's just the pretzel vendors, I don't think we have a problem with that, but I think it is a valid point that if it would indeed open it up to all comers, that would be a big concern," Dick said.

Reuben Galvin questions why a vending zone couldn’t be established that would regulate the types of vendors allowed because that’s the point of such a zone. In the meantime, he says, the city is being selective about who they crack down on.

“We’re being penalized for our success,’’ he said. “We’re being punished for legitimizing and turning into an enterprise something that has been going on for a century. People loved us out there.’’

'Nice guys earning a living'

Jerry W. Bossung, whose parents live in the neighborhood, said he buys pretzels from the Galvins on his way to or from work and would be sorry if they were no longer in business.

"They're nice guys earning a living any way they can, and I know that they clean up their area. Not only their area but the entire corner they're on," he said.

Bossung said the Galvins don't hold up traffic and are professional in their approach.

"I know Reuben will have different quantities of change in each pocket. He knows that in his left bottom pocket he has $3 in change so he can whip it out without having to count it out. I could see where people might have a problem if there are people not as prepared," Bossung said. "I like them being there, and I have no problem with them at all."

Waelterman says his department has eight inspectors who patrol the city inspecting sidewalks, potholes and the like, and they don’t have time to hunt down illegal vending operations.

"It's complaint-driven," he said. "Am I going to tell you that every time someone walks up on the corner we're going to run them off? No. But if people complain we're going to go and escort them off the corner."

Waelterman says he has bought pretzels from Joe “the pretzel guy” on Jamieson, but insists that he doesn’t have a dog in this fight. He acknowledges that his inspectors don’t work on weekends and that people who peddle on Saturdays and Sundays may fly below his radar screen.

"We're not hunting for pretzel people. It's all about what the neighborhood can withstand. If they can make it out there, and I don't get any complaints, I'm not going looking for them,'' he said. "If somebody tells me it's a problem -- that they have an issue in the right-of-way, my job is to maintain the right-of-way. If somebody is going to go to some corner and they're not going to irritate anybody and we're not going to get any complaints, we're probably not going to show up. We're not watching them on satellite."

The Galvins argue that they are being treated unfairly.

“There’s no vending in the right-of-way, but it’s been allowed by the city and the street department director is going to allow it on Saturday and Sunday,’’ said Reuben Galvin. “Is there an ordinance or regulation by which he is getting his authority to do that? He has established himself as some kind of arbiter, and I don’t think he has the authority to do that. And if he has, please let us do it, too.”

John Galvin said he just wants to sell pretzels at his old spot.

“I never wanted to be involved in some political story and have all this turmoil and be recognized,’’ he said. “I just want to sell my pretzels, make a living and not be recognized. That’s all.”

The same can be said for Joe, the 87-year-old pretzel guy, who on Saturday hawked his wares and hoped for the best, as his customers pulled up to the median to buy his pretzels and wish him well. He said he doesn’t make much money, but it helps to pay for home healthcare for his wife. Besides, he says, “It’s fun, and I like it.”

And so goes the Pretzel War on Jamieson Avenue, and so goes the surrounding debate that twists and turns and loops back around and begins where it ends -- just like a fresh-baked Gus’ you-know-what.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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