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Rebecca McCarthy
Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer

The State of the Bookstore Union

Illustration by Vinnie Neuberg

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.” Read more…