The State of the Bookstore Union

The Strand, New York City’s largest independent bookstore, is owned by a millionaire — and the booksellers who work there are all broke.

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | October 2018 | 13 minutes (3,497 words)

The Strand is the largest and most divisive of New York City’s independent bookstores. For its customers, it’s a literary landmark, a convenient public bathroom in Union Square, and one of the last places in Manhattan where tourists can see real New York Bohemia up close — like Colonial Williamsburg, but with poor people (booksellers) instead of settlers. For its employees, the store has more often been an object of resentment. Patti Smith worked there briefly in the early 1970s, but told New York magazine she quit because it “wasn’t very friendly.” Mary Gaitskill worked there for a year and a half and described it, in a thinly veiled story from Bad Behavior, as, “a filthy, broken-down store” staffed by “unhappy homosexuals.” In 2005, an anonymous employee ran a (pretty dumb) blog called “I Hate the Strand” and the reviews on the store’s Glassdoor page are still largely negative. “Employees who were so miserable they joked about torching the building,” wrote one former employee. “Honestly, shut up with the tote bags,” wrote another. (About twenty percent of the Strand’s revenue comes from merch. They sell a lot of tote bags.)

I worked at the Strand for a little over two years and honestly I liked it! I’d worked as a bartender previously, but by the time I was hired as a bookseller five of the seven bars at which I’d been employed had shuttered, either because of rising rents, the death of the owner, or, in one case, because too many of the regulars died or moved away. The Strand offered stability and a less traumatic day-to-day experience. I liked my co-workers, I attended fewer funerals, and I didn’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. every night when I had class in the morning; although because I was hired at $10 an hour, I still had to bartend on my days off to make ends meet. The store unionized in 1976 with the UAW, and it’s one of the only places in New York where bookselling — a notoriously ill-compensated industry; the drunken, wistful uncle of Publishing — can be a sustainable, long-term career for people who are not independently wealthy. The unionization has also given the store a measure of leftist cred that management has been quick to monetize: #Resistance merchandise lines the walls — ”Nevertheless She Persisted” tote bags, Ruth Bader Ginsburg magnets, and a t-shirt that reads “I Love Naps But I Stay Woke.”

Despite Wyden’s voting record, the Bass family is not exactly an unwavering champion of the working man.

The Strand headed into contract negotiations in August of this year, with the union initially proposing better healthcare coverage, three additional personal days per year, and an hourly raise of $1.50 a year. (Employees currently receive a 25-cent raise every six months.) The store shot down nearly all of the union’s proposals and proposed a wage freeze once New York City’s minimum wage is raised to $15 at the end of this year. Under the store’s initial plan, anyone making under $15 an hour as of December 31, 2018, would not receive a raise until their already-scheduled union raises exceeded $15. Anyone hired after December 31 would not receive a raise until the contract is renewed three or four years from now.

“It’s basically a wage loan instead of a wage increase,” says Greg Farrell, who has worked at the store since 2007 and is the author of On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore. “If you make $13 [an hour] now, for example, and you get bumped up to $15, you have to pay back that wage increase, 25 cents every six months, by forgoing your semi-annual increase.”

This was only the beginning of negotiations and it’s normal for the store to take a hard line in their initial offering, but employees were still worried. The company has gone through some upheaval over the past year. The owner, Fred Bass, passed away in January and was buried at sea wearing a Strand sweatshirt. The Bass family’s longtime lawyer — a man named Harry Burstein who, outside of his work for the Strand, seemed to specialize in personal injury cases — has been replaced with an actual labor attorney by the name of Gregg Gilman. The store has been run for quite some time by Fred Bass’s daughter, Nancy Bass Wyden, who is married to Ron Wyden, a famously liberal senator from Oregon who received about $126,000 from labor unions in 2018 and currently has an 89 percent lifetime voting record from the AFL-CIO.

Despite Wyden’s voting record, the Bass family is not exactly an unwavering champion of the working man. In March of 1991, sixteen workers were suspended after confronting Fred Bass over the loss of their pharmaceutical coverage. This wasn’t entirely Bass’s fault; the union was in a bad spot financially and had been running a deficit in its insurance program. When Bass became aware of that he refused to pay his contribution — arguing that employees would receive better coverage if they left the union’s plan and agreed to join an HMO. According to an article in the Village Voice, during an argument Nancy Bass “tried to open a door, and, depending on which side you’re with, she was either shoved by an employee, or she punched him.” Workers at the time described her as “confrontational” and “a monster.” In 2008, the union considered a strike over rising healthcare premiums and (separately) charges of racial discrimination were filed against the store with the National Labor Relations Board, although the complaint was ultimately withdrawn. The union has never gone on strike — mainly because it would put too many employees at risk of eviction. According to Farrell, the UAW strike fund is only able to provide workers with $200 a week during a work stoppage and Strand employees rarely have savings accounts. The closest they’ve come to striking was in 2012 with some help from the Occupy movement, a struggle documented in Farrell’s book. The store had proposed a two-tier payment system, under which new hires would receive reduced benefits and pay higher premiums. Workers staged a protest, picketing outside the store’s 85th birthday party (hosted by Bravo’s Andy Cohen for some reason) in the third-floor rare book room.

Ultimately, the store won. The two-tier healthcare system was implemented, which has caused some frustration among workers who feel like every time they go into contract negotiations their benefits just get chipped away. “We never get anything,” says Farrell, “We always have to give up three personal days or something and [the union] is like ‘We think you should sign it.’ The store is doing what they always promised to do, which is be capitalists and pinch their workers. The union is the one that’s always dropping the ball.”

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Bookselling has long been an embattled operation and its death is predicted regularly. “The retail book trade in new and second-hand books in the United States is in many important respects in an unsatisfactory condition throughout much of the country,” wrote Edward Shils in a 1963 essay for Daedalus. “There are some bright spots here and there, but on the whole the situation depresses, even appalls me. And it seems to be getting worse.”

This was in the sixties, before big box chains, before Amazon, before the internet. You could make a living writing short stories! A ridiculous time! Still, Shils was gloomy, excoriating undergraduates who did “precious little reading” outside of their assignments and publishing houses who sold directly to the public at a discount that bookstores could not match — a method Amazon would later adopt. “It may well be that we live in an epoch in which the bookshop is an institution suspended between ‘the dying old society’ and the ‘society struggling to be born,’” he wrote.

“It has few defenders. Its protagonists are feeble fellows rubbing their eyes dreamily and perplexedly at the entrance to their caves. Those who benefit from their existence (the publishers on the one hand and readers and potential readers on the other) are hard at work intentionally and unintentionally scuttling them. Perhaps the bookshop belongs to the good things of the bourgeois epoch, like the rule of law, representative institutions, public liberties, and the right of habeas corpus, things from which there is a general benefit but which have been so much taken for granted that their beneficiaries have grown careless about their well-being.”

Indie bookstores have actually seen a resurgence over the last ten years — according to the American Booksellers Association there are now over 2,400 indies in the United States, up from an all-time low of 1,651 in 2009. As Amazon’s first enemy, booksellers were forced to adapt early, and it’s paid off. Obviously the scheme is dependent on the cultural value of books, but your average customer is at least slightly more likely to think twice about buying books off Amazon than they are bath towels. There was “a decline, during the post-World War II era, in booksellers’ former identifications with a genteel culture and a social elite,” wrote Laura J. Miller in her book Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. “This led, on the one hand, to greater willingness by independents to shrug off conservative respectability and engage in politicized actions to defend the model of retailing they esteem. In their attempts to enlist public support for this activism, they have asked consumers to recognize a collective interest in opposing the usual workings of the free market.”

It is always disheartening to work under a multi-millionaire when your coworkers struggle to make rent and buy groceries.

We still live under the tyranny of the free market though, and the margins on frontlist bookselling are still very slim — after expenses the average American bookstore is only clearing about a two percent profit. According to data from Publisher’s Weekly, Amazon accounts for roughly half of the market at this point, Borders is closed, book sales at chains like Walmart and Costco have steadily declined, and Barnes and Noble is descending rapidly into the mire of debt and sexual harassment allegations. Through all of this, the Strand has thrived, largely thanks to the exorbitant price of New York City real estate.

Fred Bass bought the building in 1996 and the store rents out office space on several of the floors as well as the Rare Book Room for weddings. The Strand got into internet bookselling very early on and their Books by the Foot program designs sets for movies and TV shows; a separate division offers Library Services. They sell an enormous amount of used books, on which the profit margins are much higher, and even galleys (advance copies sent out by publishers, not intended for resale and generally given to booksellers for free) are sold in the basement for two dollars. It’s not Amazon, but it’s not exactly struggling either — the store’s spokeswoman said that overall sales had increased and sales were up specifically in poetry, children’s books, fiction, and vinyl.


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What hasn’t changed about bookselling since Shils’s essay are the booksellers — still generally “feeble fellows,” likely due to malnutrition. “The coworkers [at the Strand] are amazing [but] the bureaucracy is lacking. The structure does not necessarily reward either loyalty or hard work,” said Rebecca Dawson. Dawson worked at the Strand for three years, first in the basement and then in the visual merchandising department. She’s currently in law school. “And it is always disheartening to work under a multi-millionaire when your coworkers struggle to make rent and buy groceries.” According to a financial disclosure report her husband filed in 2014, Nancy Bass Wyden holds assets worth at least $8.5 million, although according to The Oregonian that number could be anywhere between $12 and $56 million. Fred Bass reportedly left behind around $25 million in assets when he died.

“[The store’s] main agenda is to make it a shitty place to work,” says Farrell. When employees are hired they go through a ninety day probationary period before they become members of the union. During that probationary period employees do not receive benefits and can be fired at any time. There’s an enormous amount of turnover. “They don’t want the people that get benefits. If you apply to a store and they say, ‘We pay minimum wage and our union has negotiated that you will not get any raises,’ who’s going to work there? No one’s going to work there. Or they’ll take a summer job or something. They don’t want people to stay.”

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There is little glamour in retail. It is ultimately drudgery — customer service and clerical work, a lot of shifting boxes around. But despite the low wages booksellers are expected to behave as if they are responding to a higher calling, and for the most part they do feel that way. “Independent booksellers consistently describe their work as more than just a way to make a living,” Miller observed in Reluctant Capitalists. “These booksellers see themselves as bettering society by making books available.” More than publishers, more than authors even, booksellers are true believers. Still, bettering society doesn’t necessarily pay the rent.

Embarrassingly absent from conversations surrounding bookstore labor have been the voices of authors. In the 90’s and early 2000’s there were a spate of bookstore unionizations — Powell’s in Portland, Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and a number of Borders Bookstores all voted to unionize. Mark Nowak, a poet who was living in the Twin Cities at the time, helped found a group called The Union of Radical Workers and Writers and put together the first bookstore workers organizing conference: Resist Retail Nihilism.

If you can’t demand better working conditions and wages from a millionaire married to one of the most liberal senators in the country, then from whom can you demand them?

“Despite a huge community of poets and writers in the Twin Cities, the struggle of booksellers and bookstore workers at one of the largest bookstores in town seemed to be off the radar of 99% of the local writers,” Mark Nowak wrote for the Poetry Foundation, years later. “I was even the chair of the Political Issues Committee of the National Writers Union local at the time and the most I could muster from them was a resolution of support (which I had to write myself) — not a single NWU member would show up at the Borders pickets, either.”

So people are snobs. Fine! Or maybe they’re just self-involved. I worked an event for Mark Z. Danielewski (the House of Leaves guy) in 2016 and he arrived wearing a hoodie, upon which he had printed a quote from House of Leaves. A real power move! But the total silence of authors seems particularly egregious in this case. Individual booksellers may not make much of a difference in the case of Bob Woodward’s Fear, for example — but for debut authors or those who publish with an independent press, buzz among booksellers can mean a significant sales bump. These are the people who champion unknowns for essentially no pay and in return they’ve received overwhelming ambivalence from everyone except James Patterson.

“The relationship of the literary community and the working class is a pretty problematic one in general I think,” Nowak told me over the phone. “So it really wasn’t surprising, but it was disheartening. I mean on the one hand I think that there’s no value placed in those jobs…I think that the notion [that] service sector and retail jobs are really very meaningful is not something that a lot of people have really latched onto yet.” At the point of the Resist Retail Nihilism conference, Nowak said, “we had pictured forming some kind of umbrella organization for bookstore workers who were trying to organize and we wanted to produce a book that was a history of those organizing drives, but unfortunately we never found a publisher for it.”

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Today there are only a handful of unionized bookstores and their contracts are fairly similar. Powell’s in Portland, Oregon unionized in 1999 under the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The store’s starting salary is moving up from $13.25 an hour to $13.50 next year in order to stay ahead of The Portland Metro area’s minimum wage, which went up to $12 on July 1st and is scheduled to rise gradually to $14.75 in 2022 until it’s indexed to inflation in 2023. Powell’s employees currently pay 23 percent of healthcare premiums. Book Culture, in Morningside Heights, unionized (despite an enormous amount of pushback from the owner) in 2014 with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. In 2019 new hires will start at $15 — New York City’s minimum wage. Anyone who’s been working there for less than a year as of January 1st will be bumped up to $15.25, anyone who’s been there for over a year will make $15.50. Workers pay 33.3 percent of their healthcare premiums. Green Apple Books in San Francisco declined to share details of their contract, but a job posting suggests it’s relatively close to Book Culture’s. Red Emma’s in Baltimore is unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World, although they don’t have a contract. IWW is a more informal union that’s been at the forefront of movements like the Prison Strike. The bookstore guarantees $11 an hour, maybe more depending on their profit sharing model. Baltimore’s minimum wage is currently $10.10 and Red Emma’s is a worker-owned cooperative so the worker/management relationship is less contentious than that of a regular store.

All things considered, none of the contracts are a bad deal for an entry level retail job, but bookselling isn’t exactly just retail. To be competent you need to be able to work a cash register, to be good you need to read widely and have at least a cursory understanding of basically everything. It comes with a certain cultural cachet and many use it as a transitional job out of service and into a salary — a stepping stone into publishing or writing for those who can’t take an unpaid internship. Still, the low pay is hard to swallow. So should bookstores at large be held to a higher standard? Strictly speaking, no — they’re ultimately just stores and the margins in frontlist bookselling are very low. Indie booksellers survive because they’ve managed to convince their customers that capitalism is inherently flawed, but they’re still subject to its laws. Even McNally Jackson is now being forced out of their Prince Street location after the landlord increased the rent from $360,000 to $850,000. But there’s an argument to be made that the Strand at least should be held to a higher standard. If you can’t demand better working conditions and wages from a millionaire married to one of the most liberal senators in the country, then from whom can you demand them? How many concessions are workers supposed to make so that the very rich never see their bottom line move?

“The growing labor militancy making headlines has its roots in slow, grinding efforts made in recent years by workers constantly denigrated by both major political parties and even written off by much of organized labor itself,” wrote Sarah Jaffe in a Labor Day-pegged op-ed for the New York Times. Wages stagnated as unions declined, but over the last year a wave of strikes has spread across the country and the message is pretty clear. People cannot live on what they’re making, they need more money. Jaffe spoke to Amy Mizialko, the president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. “We’re writing the fight-or-die survival chapter, but we’re not just interested in surviving,” said Mizialko. “We want it all back.”

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I was at the Strand from 2015 and 2017, in between contract negotiations. At the time, workers weren’t exactly actively invested in the union, and the retail nihilism that Mark Nowak sought to combat more than a decade ago ran rampant. “Organizing” usually took the form of bitching to each other over dollar pizza from 2 Bros and three-dollar beer at the now shuttered Grassroots Tavern. But the store has expanded its offsite business in recent years, with outposts in Bryant Park and Times Square. After a terrible winter this past year (employees working through blizzards, with insufficient heat), the rank and file has become more involved and begun to hold weekly meetings.

The store, it seems, has taken note. Management went back to the drawing board after the union rejected their initial offer and on September 25th they ratified a contract. Employees will receive a $1 raise, retroactive to September 1st and the biannual union raises will be increased from 25 cents to 30 cents. The two tier system is gone — all workers will pay 19.1 percent of their premiums. A source told me the store was negotiating in good faith, although admittedly the most significant gains for workers this year are due to the minimum wage increase rather than the goodwill of management and there’s still some resentment among workers who weren’t bumped over $15. If you’ve been there a year and you’re currently making $14 an hour, for example, as of January 1st you’ll be making the same amount as someone who’s just walked in the door. A difference of fifty cents an hour may not seem like much if you have a decent salary, but the less money you have, the more important fifty cents becomes. The contract is a win, overall, but the store’s marketing still grates.

“They have all these magnets that are like, ‘Equal Pay.’ Alright, equal pay, so everyone gets paid shit,” Farrell told me, when negotiations began. “They never made a Fight for 15 magnet.”

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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer and a bookseller.

Editor: Dana Snitzky

Factchecker: Matt Giles