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.