Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Living Wage and the Book Business

by Holly West

Recently, a beloved Bay Area bookstore announced it would be closing in March 2015 due to the increased payroll costs caused by San Francisco's recently passed measure that increases the city's hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2018.

I support the living wage. I hate the idea that a person working 40+ hours a week must still live in poverty and/or take a second job to make ends meet. Of course, I've heard the argument that able-bodied adults with households to support shouldn't be toiling in minimum wage employment in the first place. "Get yourself a skill," opponents say. "Those jobs are for teenagers looking to earn some pocket money." But we all know that "getting a skill" this isn't always a feasible option and that even educated workers often find themselves in positions that require them to take minimum wage paying jobs.

You might call me an idealist (hell, I call myself one), but to me, the real people living in a dream world are the ones who espouse the idea that all it takes is hard work to get ahead in our society or that intervention by the government isn't sometimes needed to ensure (as best it can) that all people are given a fair-ish shake. The playing field isn't even and never has been and if you've managed to somehow convince yourself that it is, well, I respectfully disagree.

It's a complicated subject, and not one I'm willing to discuss in depth in this post. But I bring it up because it's directly related to what I do want to talk about. The bookstore in question was, by their own account, doing relatively well for an independent bookstore. We all know the struggle that these establishments have faced in recent years, but this particular store had successfully weathered many financial storms in their 18 years in business and were optimistic about the future. Then, the minimum wage increase hit and once everything was taken into consideration, management came to the reluctant conclusion that their only option was to close.

And this is where I begin to question, if only slightly, on my support of the minimum wage increase. The issue, for me, isn't whether the concept of a living wage is a good thing (clearly, I think it is), it's whether certain businesses should be exempt from such increases.

The problem, as put forth by this bookstore, is that the book business differs from others in that they can't raise their prices to cover their new payroll costs. Publishers set the price of a book and it's printed right there on the cover. Furthermore, even if they could raise their prices, consumers don't want to pay retail for books in the first place, and with large online retailers and big box stores offering huge discounts, they don't have to.

The pricing "quirks" of the book business and the competition brought by ebooks and online retailers have been an issue for independent bookstores for years now. Some have managed to continue, and even prosper, while others have had no choice but to close. But what happens when an independent bookstore has managed to stay afloat amid all of these challenges, only to be derailed by a government-mandated minimum wage increase?

Some would say it's the cost of doing business (literally and figuratively). It's no different from anything else that affects the financial well-being of an establishment and if it can't find a way to make up for the losses, then so be it. Kind of the free market argument turned on its head, given the circumstances. But this isn't a case of fat cats getting fatter off of the hard work of its low paid workers. This is a small business that has itself worked hard to keep their heads above water. When do they catch a break?

Lordie, if I had all the answers to life's complicated questions, I'd be writing this post from my yacht in Capri. That's where people with yachts take them, right? But I'm really just a simple country girl (I can say that now that I've left the big city) trying to make sense of complicated issues that so many people seem to want to make clear cut. They're just not.

And so I turn to you, dear reader, for your take on this matter. The bookstore I'm talking about recently set up sponsorship opportunity for customers who'd like to support the store. When I learned about this, I was dubious for a number of reasons (a topic I might take on in a future post) but as of this writing, it seems as though they've been successful enough to remain open for the rest of the year. That, to me, is a good thing. Perhaps, with a bit of time on their side, they'll come up with other viable ways to keep the business going. I certainly hope so.


Dana King said...

Full disclosure: I'm a labor guy in most such disputes. That's a tough call here, as the choice is, ultimately, toward their workers making less money, or no money. That's where my sympathies lie.

Many workers get jobs where they can. While I worked for small businesses in the past, and understand the good they do, no one forces anyone to open a shop. Paraphrasing HYman Roth, "This is the life they've chosen." No one is guaranteed a living in this country.

Thom Perkins said...

Glad to see the California store found a way to stay open. Many stores have resorted to telling readers to treat them as a charity -- give us money to help us make a living. It's a rough business for everyone out there. You have to provide something if you're going to charge for it.

And if I can buy a copy of a hardback from Joelle Charbonneau or John McFetridge online for a few dollars (plus a few dollars to have it shipped to my home tomorrow) then why should I get in my car and drive down to a downtown bookstore and pay $28.99 for the same book? It's a tough racket, this book biz.

Holly West said...

When you put it this way, Dana, the only conclusion I can come to is that I'm a labor guy, too.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

My husband and I have each run our own business for over a dozen years, as in we have separate businesses, not run the same one together. We work every day, often until very late at night, and we make enough to pay our bills and keep doing what we do.

We have long wished we could afford assistants so life could be easier but unless we could pay them a living wage, we will just continue to do everything ourselves. We consider ourselves a success in that we've managed to keep doing business for so long, but we didn't achieve that success at the expense of anyone else's fortune.

My parents were war refugees who had advanced degrees in their home country but had to take minimum-wage jobs when they came here because their degrees meant nothing. They had 3 jobs each because they had six kids to feed. People who think my parents should've just "gotten a skill" are ignorant because my dad was partially educated at Stanford as part of an exchange program and did the best he could when his life situation changed.

Sorry that this comment is so long, Holly. This topic is personal and I appreciate your very thoughtful post.

John Mullen said...

Holly, I don't know if it would work, but one alternative to raising the minimum wage would be to increase government support for the poor. At least that would not put the squeeze on small businesses.

John Mullen

Holly West said...


Thank you for *your* comment. It's very thought-provoking.

Incidentally, I worked for 10 years as a foreign credentials analyst. The non-profit organization Most of our clients were individuals who'd studied outside of the United States who needed educational equivalencies for employment, immigration, further education, licensing, and other purposes. I can't tell you how many people I interacted with who were in roughly the same situation as your parents--highly educated people who'd held prestigious positions in their home country who were forced to take low-paying jobs once the immigrated to America. I tried, as much as possible within the established guidelines of our office, to make things easier for them. But sometimes, my evaluations caused great disappointment. 30 years ago, for example, primary school teachers in many Latin American countries were educated at the secondary school level. They became qualified to teach primary school children with what is essentially the equivalent of a vocational high school diploma. Many of these teachers had taught in their home countries for decades and were good at their jobs, only to come here to find that they had to start over completely. Witnessing such heartbreak is one of the reasons I left my position.

Jay Stringer said...

There's the flip side of the issue to raising to a living wage; people's outgoings.

As you said, bookstores are different to other businesses in some ways, and have less control over the topline price (though they have room to charge less, to try to increase volume of sales through promotions and discounts...) whereas other stores in the town can. And many of those other stores do. So do the gas and electric companies. So do the transport companies. It costs more to buy milk, bread, vegetables. It costs more to transport them, to store them. To keep warm. clothed and fed. The very fact that other businesses have more control over pricing -while minimum wage stays low- means it's more an issue of outgoings than incomings. In my day job, I speak to hundreds of people a day who have to make choices like, "do I pay for the gas this week, or the electric? Do I eat three meals a day this week, or do I skip a few and pay down on my credit debts?" The first thing they tell me, as we talk through their budget, is that they've already cut out "luxuries." They've stopped buying clothes, cancelled subscriptions to sky/cable/magazines. They don't go out eating in local restaurants, and they certainly don't go spending in local bookshops. The bills are going up, and people's income isn't.

So, I totally understand how it can be a dilemma if we look at the store in isolation. To say that the bookstore has less room for maneuvre to bring more money in, and will end up having to cut costs in some form. On that side of things, it certainly does look grim for a store to have to pay higher costs than they do now. But the other thing we're saying is, there's not much money to go around, and people are spending it on things other than the bookstore.

The more people are on a living wage, the better chances that bookstores will make some money. Plus, I'd also say, one of the reasons we're in this mess is because certain large businesses decided they could play by different rules. If we were to create some (very well meaning) exemption for living wage from small stores, we can bet those bigger businesses would be hiring teams of hundreds of lawyers to prove the exemption applied to them, too.

Though, we're all writers here, so we're all already working for less than minimum wage, let alone living wage ;)