John Allen, who built up an appreciative customer base selling newspapers at the Downtown Berkeley BART station, is in hospice care. Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle/Michael Macor

Update, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 12 p.m. Reached by phone Tuesday morning, John Allen said he missed “putting a smile” on the faces of the many former customers of his newspaper stand at the Downtown Berkeley BART station.

“I got to know them pretty well,” Allen said. Some would joke around with him, and others he could count on to “complain every day about the news.” He said he “had a good time” with the BART staff too.

As print media declined and paper prices spiked — from 50 cents when Allen started to $2 when he left, he said — fewer people would buy his copies. But even so, “a lot of people just dropped by to say hello.”

These days, since his health declined and he left the job, “I’m living another lifestyle,” Allen said. He’s not doing much anymore, he told Berkeleyside, but has appreciated the cards and letters he’s received since his address was posted on the shuttered newspaper stand (see photo below) a few weeks ago.

“It cheers me up a little bit,” he said.

Original story, Friday, Nov. 30: Before virtually every BART commuter spent their ride with their head down, looking at their phone, it was common to see at least some people gripping a strap with one hand and a folded-up newspaper in another.

Many who started their journeys at the Downtown Berkeley station looked forward to picking up the latest issue from John Allen.

For the past 13 years or so, Allen has been selling papers and candy bars inside the BART station, building a stable of regular customers who relied on him for the news and a morning greeting — until recently.

In the past few weeks, signs appeared at John’s Newspaper Stand, sharing the news that Allen was in the hospital and, on Nov. 1, that he had been placed in hospice care. His fans are encouraged to send cards and letters to an address included on one of the signs. Per a message posted Nov. 26, Allen “continues to chug along.” (Berkeleyside has reached out to Allen and will update this story if he gets in touch.)

Allen, now 79 or 80, hawked the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers. First he was set up under the escalator, and had recently moved elsewhere to make way for the construction.

When station agents arrived for the first shift of the day at 4 a.m., “John would be there waiting for us,” said agent Nancy Brown.

She and her colleagues would buy a paper from him, copy the Sudoku page, and pass it down the station from agent to agent.

“We miss John,” Brown said Friday morning.

In 2010, Allen gave an interview to the Chronicle, speaking about the pleasure he got from chatting with customers and others who passed through the station. Although newspaper sales were already down dramatically at that point, he still had plenty of regulars, who would show their appreciation by decorating the stand on Allen’s birthday, or gifting him bottles of liquor during the holidays.

Allen talked about his practice of buying papers for customers who couldn’t afford them, typically spending $12 of his own money each day.

“He helped a lot of homeless people” too, station agent George Figueroa told Berkeleyside. “He would give them money and feed them.” Since he stopped selling the papers, people “are always asking for him,” Figueroa said.

But Allen’s kindness couldn’t be taken advantage of — he told the Chronicle he’d developed a system for catching newspaper thieves, often “people with suits and ties on,” by putting marked quarters in his payment cup and seeing if people claimed them as theirs.

Berkeley resident Lea Delson said she isn’t one of Allen’s regulars, but has bought papers from him several times and was saddened to read the messages about his health.

“He is very personable, witty, and kind, and has a wry sense of humor,” she said in an email. “Buying a newspaper from him adds a note of humanity and personal contact to my morning.”

Signs posted on John Allen’s newspaper stand, recently relocated from under the escalator at the Downtown Berkeley BART station, share that he’s in hospice care. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Delson said she typically buys newspapers from Allen’s North Berkeley BART counterpart, also “a really wonderful guy,” who’s learned enough of several foreign languages to be able to speak with his diverse clientèle.

Delson said she wonders how long vendors like him and Allen will be able to stay in business, as print media declines.

The staff at the downtown station said they can’t imagine someone replacing Allen.

“I think that was just John’s stand,” said janitor Rasheeda Gaines. “It’s going to be a loss.”

Allen grew up in an orphanage and foster care homes in Rochester, New York, and now lives in downtown Berkeley.

According to sign posted on his stand Nov. 26, Allen is spending these days “occasionally coming down to BART or traveling around Berkeley to visit his friends.”

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...