‘I thought I would lose everything again’ - Big Issue seller on lockdown struggles

Big Issue seller Simon Gravell, 52, in Norwich with his card reader. Picture: SOPHIE WYLLIE

Big Issue seller Simon Gravell, 52, in Norwich with his card reader. Picture: SOPHIE WYLLIE - Credit: SOPHIE WYLLIE

Simon Gravell, 52, has lost everything before and thought it would never happen again.

But that all changed when coronavirus struck the world.

By the second month of lockdown the Big Issue seller, who normally works outside Topshop on Haymarket, could not pay the bill for his private room in Norwich and had run out of savings.

Unable to work due to the pandemic, Mr Gravell found himself in debt to friends and family members and on the brink of homelessness.

In 2009, Mr Gravell was made redundant at his job in a fish cake factory in Grimbsy due to the recession and spent a period rough sleeping.

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“I really thought that was on the verge of happening again.” he said, “I’ve spent ten years as a seller for the Big Issue and I love it but with the strict lockdown we were not allowed to work. I just had no idea when I would be allowed to work again and with each day was just losing more money. Finance was just a one way street and it was all going on gas, bills and electricity. It was running out so much I was having to avoid people.”

In order to keep his head above water Mr Gravell had to move in with his girlfriend prematurely.

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But since returning to work after non-essential shops reopened on June 15, the financial situation has not improved.

Before lockdown Mr Gravell would work five days a week but is now working every day and an additional 24 hours a week.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said, “Sales are terrible at the moment and I can’t afford to not be trying to sell copies. I’m also worried I might catch covid but I’ve got to put a roof over my head first.”

Normally, Mr Gravell would sell to 24 people on a “good day” but now he says he considers 18 customers good.

He said: “I have been down as low as nine people. I did have my highest day since I came back recently, which was 28 customers, but that was sandwiched between two poor days. It wasn’t a case of feeling like I had hit the jackpot. It just levelled the other poor days out.”

Overall, in an average week before the outbreak of coronavirus, Mr Gravell would sell to between 70 and 115 customers a week but now sells to between 70 and 90 people.

He said: “I think the drop has been because my three main customer bases are students, older people and office workers. These are all people who haven’t returned or are unlikely to feel safe in the city centre.

“I’m hoping I can get the figures back up as people are coming back to the office. I enjoy the challenge of building it back up and think I am lucky to have a job to go back to.”

Last year, Mr Gravell started offering card payments which he said, during the pandemic, had “literally put the food on the table.”

He said: “The card machine is my real saving grace. Without it, due to people not wanting to handle cash while coronavirus is about, I wouldn’t have sold half the amount. It makes me wonder how other sellers without card machines are surviving.

“I’m being extremely cautious around coronavirus. While I don’t wear a mask all the time as I’m outside I will put on a mask if a customer approaches me wearing one. I also create a social distance when I pass over copies and sanitise my hands constantly.”

For now, Mr Gravell is taking each day as it comes and looks forward to seeing his regular customers.

But he said he fears a second lockdown.

“If we had another lockdown I would be homeless,” he said, “Or very deep in debt. One more lockdown would be the sucker punch.”

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