What concrete steps can we take to pay staff a living wage in traditional brick and mortar bookstores?

Host: Kim at Third Place Books

Participants: Kim Hooboer of Third Place Books, Sara Look of Charis Books and More, Amber Norris of Left Bank Books STL, Alex Green of Publisher’s Weekly, Scott Minor (Bookish in King of Prussia PA), Anna Thorne, Amber Norris (Left Bank Books), Roy (Rozzie Bound), Pat Mullins (Bliss Books), Chris Saccheri (Linden Tree Books), Vanessa MacLaren-Wray (Author, SF Bay Area), Aziza, Bunnie (Brave + Kind Books)


Overarching themes:

1.      Everyone wants to pay a living wage.

a.      For these participants, this is an important step they are aiming for

b.      In the wider world, there are unions forming, and owners need to know how to work with unions

c.    Paying a living wage is essential for the future of bookstores

2.      Margins are terribly low.

a.      Costs are high and publishers don’t cut a break for indie bookstores

b.      Transparency on revenues and costs can help the discussion with workers

c.       It’s important not to become complacent

3.      Owners are often not paying themselves a living wage.

a.      Some may have an angel-investor who provides support, some may rely on a partner for family income

b.      Though it rests on bookstores as an essential community resource, this is a red flag for long-term sustainability

4.      Customers may be unaware of how their book purchase are a labor-related choice

a.      The idea of adding a labor-linked surcharge can either a) annoy customers, who already pay extra at bookstores or b) help customers understand they’re supporting those experts

b.      The expertise and enthusiasm and personal attention of booksellers has a high value that is difficult to monetize.

This was a beautiful conversation:  I’m sharing as much as I could here! These are not exact quotes but paraphrasings as best as I could manage. It was fascinating to listen in to this discussion. My understanding and appreciation for the task facing toda’ys bookstores was greatly informed by this practical, down-to-earth discussion   -Vanessa MacLaren-Wray, using authorial expertise to take notes 😊

Kim (host): How can I (as a bookstore manager) go forward without paying my staff a living wage? I can’t become a co-op. I know my finances and don’t know how to proceed.

Alex Green: As a journalist, I’m seeing wages as the biggest issue destroying businesses all over the country. They are missing a point that getting wages higher is necessary to make bookstores sustainable. You need to boost sales for everything, the ABA can’t do that for you, BookShop maybe helped, publishers won’t give on margins, until an antitrust suit can break Amazon down.  You need a stable workforce that’s excited to come to work and sell more books. Frontline booksellers aren’t at the table much. Articulating why there’s a need for this is a big step….I’m not sure that there’s a universal feeling that wages are a critical issue.

There’s unionization effort around the country, so you’re likely to see unions in the future. That may be another large ‘company’ to cope with in the future. The threat is real, the urgency is real, and people are suffering along the way.  My coverage is all about how it’s difficult being a bookseller, a sense of depression.  Paying booksellers more is a crucial thing or this is all going to collapse.

As a journalist, I don’t want to keep telling this story. It’s sad.

Kim: has seen some union involvement, when working for Powell Books (ILWU). Elliot Bay created a union…such a lot of work for this relatively small group.  As a manager, now, I feel that it’s too much work for them to do that organizing effort as well as all the rest of the things they have to do. There’s only so much money to go around, everyone in the business is smart.

Alex: right now, there’s also not a lot of good support for owners to be effective partners in a union negotiation. Examples:  Green Apple Books, Porter Square Books, transitioned to a worker-owned business…but can you do that everywhere?

Kim: Our workers need to be able to live, first. 

Sara: owners have to acknowledge that they’re going to pay themselves. Many bookstores seem to be run with external support, where, in effect, the owner isn’t paid, so how can they pay their workers.  I’ve experienced periods where I stopped taking my salary. I hear arguments like “if you can’t pay your workers, or yourself, then why have a bookstore?” Even now, when business is relatively good, we still can’t pay staff what we want to.  The goal is to get everybody to $15/hour.  It’s a goal, inching up every six months. If the owners aren’t paying themselves, the bookstore isn’t sustainable.

Anna: in Canada, they have a foundation, the Heritage Foundation, of which bookstores are a part. In some places, bookstores are supported as community resources. Co-op model could work in America, where we’re not doing that. I’ve worked in work co-ops: either a membership model or a worker-based co-ownership model could work.

Kim: will that rankle customers who already pay more for books they buy from bookshops?

Anna: well, they could gain governing benefit as a bookstore co-op member.

Sara: we are a hybrid (bookstore is for-profit, the nonprofit does community justice work), and at this point, when the nonprofit is doing well, the nonprofit’s staff earns more than the bookstore staff, but we have to maintain a hard line between the two—we can’t run a fundraiser for worker wages.

Kim: Can we talk about tipping? Tipping is our way of recognizing the service of the individual. When I worked at Word, tips for café staff made up the difference between café and bookselling jobs. Could we do something like that for booksellers?

Alex:  in a couple of weeks, Kepler’s going to add a 2% surcharge to boost employee wages, following a local restaurant model.  Another person in a different panel responded to that with “our customers already struggle to pay our prices.”

Amber: cited an article against the surcharge, as it creates a conflict between the worker and the customer, places the onus on the worker instead of manager

Sara:  paid a 4% surcharge at a shop recently for “supply chain issue.”  People won’t do that for books, because people don’t want to pay for books. It’s already a conscious choice to pay more by going to the bookstore.

Anna:  one thing about tipping/surcharges, it is awareness-raising. We don’t want to make ourselves out as on the verge of extinction, but paying for expertise and being better at showing what booksellers do for the whole ecosystem is important. We’re providing a lot of good to the community. If indies disappeared, it would become a barren hellscape of best-sellers. Readers don’t know that. They don’t see the consequences, the whole future of the ecosystem. Maybe it’s an industry argument, but there’s not enough money because we don’t get the e margin we need.

Sara: quoting an ABA workshop, the 2% solution, from which I retained the figure “total payroll should be no more than 20% of your sales”  Is that still a real figure? Does it make sense? We’re trying to reduce the price of books, but how can we?

Scott (Bookish in King of Prussia PA): If I don’t buy from Ingram, that saves money, so I like to work directly with small publishers. There’s no room to discount anything. We pay 15% to the mall we’re in, and around 50% to the distributors for the books. We do a lot of other things, like running conferences and a mobile book service. I’m relatively new to this business.  Is Amazon really the only thing that’s broken us?

Amber: Our model has changed dramatically since COVID. We need way more work done, now. There’s no way it’s the same.

Alex: If your sales volume is up, but the cost of meeting that sales volume has consumed that gain, that’s another layer of trouble when it should have been relief.

Roy (from Rozzie Bound): There’s an economic flaw. For-profit bookstores serve an educational and social component to the community similar to a nonprofit, but they’re at a competitive disadvantage. They can’t take volunteers without violating labor laws, can’t apply for grants. This feels like a structural flaw. Is there a way to have an ancillary nonprofit? That’s a difficult path, with legal, financial headaches. Could we have a broader, literary, volunteer nonprofit that linked volunteers for a regional/local bookselling association, that pairs helpers for a community event or to develop grants?

Amber: Having volunteers, does that devalue workers?

Roy: Clarification:  volunteers would be more for community events, but yes, there could be a tension there.

Sara:  Volunteers are a lot of work, of course. You need a volunteer manager.

Amber: yes, volunteers are work, too 😊. Question: are we being clear on why we need living wages? Do we need to think it out ourselves or better communicate it to the customers/community?

Alex: People aren’t thinking about labor when they go to buy a book? Where is the one-argument through line on why this [living wages] is important to this whole process? Attaching the proud statement that this is a special thing, an expertise with value, rather than the tone of “wages are tough and booksellers are having a hard time”.  Why is it wrong in the industry as a whole?

Anna:  Finding the right books for readers, having the expertise. For authors, making space for books to have the heterogeneity, the diversity that wouldn’t be heard through Amazon, big box, algorithms. Without a bookseller putting them in people’s hands, they won’t get sold.

Kim: Social media. Other people do put books into people’s hands. Keep in mind that the TikTokker’s weepy influencer endorsement is supported by a big publisher giving them a book to do that with.

Sara: The idea is that “you do this because you love it, it’s not about the money”.  But…if you don’t value paying your staff and being sustainable, then you’ll never raise your wages. Even our customers worry that we’ll not survive. If the bookstore is for the greater good, you’re just existing, but you can’t make progress on wages with that mentality. That is a fundamental shift to make.  Unless you can sell more, cut costs.

Kim: It would cost $73,000 a year to bump our staff’s wages to a living wage. That’s massive, in context of the operation. Keep in mind that living-wage calculations already assume employers are providing health care. That’s an important detail to be aware of.

Sara: In 2001, we had to stop paying health care, for everyone.

Anna: Transparency could be … not a solution, but a good first step.

Alex: If you’re not even paying yourself, it’s hard to realize your employees need paid. A certain fraction of stores are, on this basis, not viable right now, because of these business practices.

Amber: As our store is justice-oriented on a mission basis, it’s becoming more and more of a problem, because our company purports to be about justice, and our employees tend to be activists, so there’s a need to match expectations. We’re transparent with revenue and expenses, but then that creates a sense of complacency. We still need to push it. How does our space differentiate us from Amazon? Here, queer people can walk in, feel safe, be themselves. There’s something about the physical space in the community that plays into the “why”?

Kim: The sense of complacency resonates, the argument of “but I love what I do”. Transparency may not work in the sense that employees may look at numbers and say, what does this mean for me?

Scott: Question—has the publishing industry capitalized on the kind of person who becomes a bookseller.  Has this margin been this bad for a long time? What changed?

Anna:  How do more sustainable models work? For publishers….they give a much higher discount to Amazon. Bookstores are about 8% of their market. So if they could give bookstores a bit more margin, 2%, that could make a huge difference, at a small cost to the publisher, to make substantially more sales through bookstores.

Pat: in the past, there was less paperwork, easier to run a small shop with just one or two people.

Alex: Overall, ABA cannot negotiate terms, since the 90’s.  The expectation of speed that books would come to people faster, and the downsizing of stores means that more and more stores went to wholesalers and the margins keep dropping, so you’re scrambling to make up by volume. It’s been a downward spiral. So then you lose longtime booksellers. Newer booksellers are less experienced, all to get books faster, meet customer need. 

Alex: I do think there are positive solutions floating in this event. We need a way to pick those up. There’s momentum for this.  There are publishers here in this meeting, so they’re interested too. 

Scott: There are all these other things you need to be excellent at to get people into your store. Like authors who need to be active on social media and market themselves, we need to be excellent at more than our core expertise of knowing and selling books.

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