Nine months before Harry Truman won his unexpected presidential election in 1948, Ann Cooper came to Washington. A few months later, after completing a course on hotel management and running the canteen at Sibley Hospital, the young woman in her 20s from Warren, Ohio, started a newsstand on Capitol Hill. She has been a fixture there ever since.
Today, one block north of the Dirksen Senate Office Building at 301 1st St. NE, in a trailer, is Ann's Newsstand, which Annie (everybody calls her Annie) Cooper has operated since 1965. Before that, beginning in the summer of 1948, she owned and operated her news business downstairs in the Carroll Arms Hotel. "I answered an ad," volunteers the businesswoman. The man who ran the stand had a heart attack, and his son was selling it for $1,000.
So, Cooper began hobnobbing with famous senators and their staffs. And, even though she has come upon some hard times since then, household names still talk and joke with her and, most important, consider her a friend.
"When I was at the Carroll Arms," begins Cooper, "Sen. John F. Kennedy used to eat in the dining room and he'd come down to read the magazines. He never bought them, just looked. He was shabbily dressed and always looked like he needed a haircut. You know, with his hair always hanging along side of his face." Then, Cooper pauses a few seconds and continues: "He was very nice and friendly. Those were the good old days. People just are not like that now."
In addition to Kennedy, other senators later to become household words, were newsstand patrons. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson were, at times, regulars. "When Senator Jackson first got elected, he'd come in here every night to pick up his paper. And Senator Humphrey was a friendly soul. Everybody liked him. I have some thank you cards from him which I will always treasure. Not long before he died, I sent a card for his birthday." Today, the senate majority and minority leaders, Howard Baker and Robert Byrd, respectively, order their daily papers from Ann's Newsstand.
Cooper toiled in her Carroll Arms stand until 1965, when the hotel was sold. "When I first moved to the trailer," she explains, "I thought it would be temporary. But I got used to it and didn't want to move back when the hotel reopened." Since reopening, the Carroll Arms, where comedian Mark Russell began his career and powerful Hill types made deals around the bar, has come upon hard times. In recent years, the building has been converted into office space for the surfeit of senate staff members.
Cooper, too, has had a string of bad luck the past few years. Over an 18-month period, beginning in November, 1977, she had a pacemaker implanted, was mugged and fell, breaking her hip. However, her shop never closed. Her friends on Capitol Hill came to her rescue. Hill policemen especially were helpful. Many men and women volunteered their lunch hours to take over her duties.
And Donnie Burch, who now serves as a Hill policeman on the House side, used a month's vacation to run the newsstand. According to Terry Flaherty, who heads the Senate parking unit, there really was no alternative. "If Annie had not gotten help from her friends like she did, she probably would have had to close up." Flaherty, who has known her since she arrived on the Hill, and is a close friend, continues: "The stand couldn't afford to take on any full-time help, and even with the way people helped out, Annie did, and still, has a rough time making it. Remember in her business, the profit margin is very small even in the best run stands."
And the consensus is that, Ann's Newsstand has not been masterfully run. "Annie's been too nice for her own good," concludes Allen Neece, Jr., who, until last November, served as legislative counsel to the Senate Small Business Committee. Neece, who now directs his own Washington consulting firm, elaborates: "In the old days, Annie used to be a bank to some of the Hill staffers. If they were strapped, they'd come to her for a loan. Large amounts of money, too, and many times she was never paid back."
Cooper's small-town habit of trusting people, without getting a word on paper, proved nearly fatal to her business. Her debts kept piling up. Finally, early in 1980, with the help of Neece and Janet Downs, staff members of the Senate Small Business Committee, Cooper received a $20,000 Small Business Administration loan under the new mini-businesswomen's direct loan program. However, even with this aid, coupled with advice on sound business management from the SBA's Service Corps of Retired EXECUTIVES (SCORE), the wolves were still at Annie Cooper's door.
Last March, her largest creditor threatened to cut off deliveries within a week if she did not pay up.
Once again, Cooper's friends showed her how much they cared. With hardly any notice, comedian Mark Russell, Cooper's friend since early Carroll Arms days, Flaherty, and Roll Call editor Sid Yudain organized a fund raiser. And last March, more than 350 Annie Cooper friends, at a minimum of $10 a head, raised $6,500. At the shindig in a Senate committee room, the Capitol Hill pecking order was ignored, as lowly staffers mingled freely with senators.
Today, Annie Cooper remains right where she belongs, a block from the Capitol, running her business. Five days a week, from 5 am until 6 pm, she's there.On Saturdays and Sundays, she knocks off early at 3:30 or 4:00. She closes only on Christmas day. And she has enlisted the support of a bookkeeper who picks up the books one day a week.
She'll probably carry on essentially just the way she always has, running a business where, as Mark Russell observed, "The six words heard most often in her career have been. 'Can you trust me till payday?'"