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Will Brown / Staff photographer

From behind the counter of this neighborhood bookstore, Book Culture employees have grown disenchanted with management.

Staff members at Book Culture are grappling with ongoing frustration with management as a new location introduces yet another source of tension. Book Culture, the local independent bookseller on 112th Street just off Broadway, opened a new 114th Street location this week to fill the void left by Morningside Bookshop. And while many neighborhood residents are breathing a sigh of relief to see an independent bookseller return to this prime retail spot, a group of employees at Book Culture have expressed grievances over being denied pay and health care benefits. For these workers, the Local 169 Workers United Union has been, if sometimes unsuccessfully, their only means to protect themselves. But for many in management, the Union is a mere headache that often polarizes the staff and puts a huge, unnecessary strain on a small, independent business struggling to stay afloat. Owner Chris Doeblin and his management team have said that Book Culture is hurting financially and is doing all that it can to keep the store alive while expanding to 114th. Saving pennies Recent holidays at Book Culture have been less than joyous for staffers and for Doeblin. Holiday pay has been a contentious issue for a few years at the store, according to past and current employees who have said that the management has repeatedly denied holiday pay to workers when it is owed to them as stipulated by their contracts. Doeblin is currently in arbitration with one employee who—with support from the Union—disagreed with the owner's reading of the contract. According to Christina Towne, business manager for the Local 169 Workers United Union, the contract states that part-time employees who work between 22 and 32 hours per week are required to receive pay on days they would have worked had they not been holidays. But Doeblin said that this point is very vague in the contract. "We had a disagreement—that is not unheard of," he said, adding that he interpreted the contract to mean he did not owe these workers anything. The contract—a copy of which Towne provided to Spectator—sets forth specific holiday pay calculations for part-time employees under 22 hours per week as well as pay formulas for full-time employees. Though one part of the holiday pay language refers to "all" employees, there is no explicit mention of workers employed between 22 and 32 hours, and Doeblin has denied pay to this group based on that perceived hole in the contract. The worker who brought forth the arbitration—who was granted anonymity to protect her job—said the back-and-forth fight has been extremely distressing. She fought for pay denied to her on New Years Day, and the management eventually gave her what she argued was owed to her. But on Memorial Day, she said that she and two other employees did not receive holiday pay, even after she retroactively demanded it. "Why now are you deciding that the contract is so ambiguous?" she later recalled of her reaction. "It gets exhausting to feel like you have to fight for every little penny," she said, adding, "It was just so uncomfortable." Towne echoed this frustration, stating, "Over the whole course of their employment, they had always received this holiday pay. Two holidays into the contract, Chris decided to read this and say, 'I don't think they get holiday pay.'" She added, "It was such a bizarre interpretation." Nathan Abookire, who worked at Book Culture for over two years and left recently because he was moving out of the city, confirmed that this issue of holiday pay came up regularly. He said that employees and union representatives often disagreed with Doeblin's interpretations with regard to pay. Another current employee—also granted anonymity for job protection—did not get paid for the Fourth of July. "He said, ‘This is the way I am reading the contract,' but we didn't understand why we weren't getting paid," Abookire echoed. Brenna Kearney, a past employee who no longer lives in the city, said that she, too, had disagreements with management over holiday pay. "The general trend is, he doesn't want to pay his workers, and if he can get around it, he will," she said. Aside from holiday disputes, the worker involved in the arbitration said that she has repeatedly had to fight for pay—citing one instance in which the management initially claimed she hadn't worked as many hours as she actually did. Though the issue was resolved, she said it took a great effort. "Why should I donate my time? It is a job," she said. Doeblin, in response to these types of grievances, argued that cutting costs in a small independent business is an economic reality, and he said he makes a serious effort to be fair and to abide by the contracts. "The only tool I have to stay afloat is to cut payroll," he said, adding that he has given himself a significant pay cut. Speaking of the holiday pay and his interpretation of the contract, he added, "It is a matter of principle to me." Towne estimated that the dispute totaled close to $1,000, but Doeblin said it was probably less than $500. Regardless, the sum does not make a difference, he said, in his nearly million-dollar payroll—and thus it is a matter of precedent and not financial necessity. For Doeblin, the issue is about not giving in to the union every time it makes a demand. He added that, ultimately, his eye has to be on the wellbeing of the store. "Whether or not our store is having difficulties, as the financial manager of the store as well as a lot of other hats, I have to do the best I can for the store," he said. Health care for some Despite the conflict over holiday pay, several disgruntled employees have said that issues regarding health insurance have been much more contentious over the past several years. The employee involved in the arbitration said that when she started working at Book Culture, she quickly worked her way up to full-time hours after she joined the Union. And after she had been working full-time schedules for a few weeks, she was told that health insurance was not available. "I asked week after week after week. Finally, they told me, there wasn't a full-time position available, which is a major problem, because they decide kind of magically," she said. "I had been working my ass off." She guessed that her request for the health benefits was a huge factor in the sudden unavailability of full-time positions. "They don't like it when people actually read the contract," she added. She is not alone. According to Mo-Yain Tham, a past employee, one of her colleagues who worked full time had to repeatedly request the health insurance she deserved. "It was a constant fight to get them to pay for her medicine," she said, adding, "She was being proactive, and there were days when she would get really frustrated." Three current employees anonymously confirmed that there have been multiple instances of workers seeking health care to no avail and one specific case of a current full-time employee who has faced a lot of problems. "She should be getting it and she is upset. It reflects so poorly on Chris," another worker said. For Doeblin and other managers, though, there is a simple response to these grievances: health insurance is extremely expensive, and the reality is that management has to be fiscally careful about awarding those benefits. "We do limit the number of slots," Annie Shapiro, a manager and partner in the new store on 114th Street, said of full-time employees. "It is very expensive, and it is fantastic that we can offer it to as many people as we do. We just can't do that for everyone." Doeblin said that the current health insurance costs are more than half the rent. "There are many employees who have families who are counting on health insurance—including my own," he said of the people that do receive the benefits, adding that he cannot plummet his store into debt by increasing the amount of workers who are subsidized. While the employee involved in arbitration and other staff members frustrated with the health care disputes acknowledged these financial realities, miscommunication and denial are what upset them most. But David Patterson, Book Culture's hiring manager, said that, along with fiscal constraints, the store cannot just open up a full-time position for a new worker unless someone leaves. Seniority also makes it difficult to promote someone to a position with benefits. The contract, Patterson said, makes clear stipulations about seniority to the point where someone could be denied a position because another employee has been at the store longer. He said of the contract constraints, "There's times when the perception would be management's decision, but it is not." Doeblin described greater frustration with the American health care system in general, saying that employees were wrongly turning independent store management into the enemy. "If we had universal health care, everyone could share in," he said, adding, "Let's stand up not as one individual feeling shortchanged about the way I am treating them, but let's stand up as a bookselling industry and say, 'Who do you want to be in business here?'" For Doeblin, medical benefits policies are part of the survival of a local, independent, community enterprise. He said, "You can stack up all the chips against me that you want, but the stakes for us are huge. If you don't want me to be as dedicated to running business as I am, fine, go shop at Walmart." Union: protection or polarizer? Doeblin said that he would eliminate the Union if he had the power to do so. Along with the financial constraints it places on his business, he added, "One develops a terrific sense of entitlement." And for many employees, this attitude carries through to the workplace. One past employee was fired two weeks before she headed off to graduate school with very little explanation, she said. Though she questioned the management and was given a vague explanation, this worker—who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her future employment prospects—guessed that her firing could have been due in part to the fact that she would soon be eligible to join the Union. Tham said that it was ironic that many employees often feel as though they have little protection despite the fact that the store was unionized. "For a store that theoretically has employees with rights and methods of having fairness instilled in the store, it felt like it wasn't really being utilized and wasn't allowed to be utilized," she said. Kearney echoed these concerns regarding hypocrisy at Book Culture, saying of Doeblin, "He makes it seem like it is this neighborhood organization you are coming into, where he is paying his workers a living wage, but it's not true. It's false. The nice, independent store, it is a lie." For Abookire, much of his experience at Book Culture was tainted by what he called constant "union busting" on the management's part. Abookrie said that contract negotiations typically involved Doeblin trying to minimize the Union and added, "Why would you want to alienate people who are supposed to be the face of the community?" Annie Shapiro, one of the managers, expressed frustrations with the Union, arguing that it divided Book Culture's employees. "It encourages everyone to act in formal, antagonistic ways," she added, "It is the underlying source of the problem—it creates a tremendous amount of tension." A new store in a pained industry For Shapiro, the new store on 114th Street is the biggest business investment of her life. Shapiro joined the business as Doeblin's partner so they could have a viable finance plan and avoid the black hole of debts that killed the site's predecessor. Shapiro—who will be the manager at the new location—hired an entirely new staff of around seven workers. She said that she acknowledges the past drama at the 112th Street location and hopes to create a stronger, more intimate environment two blocks north. With a more close-knit operation, Shapiro said she plans to establish a relaxed workplace in which employees will have more autonomy—and hopefully leave the union drama behind. According to Doeblin and Shapiro, the new store will stock an assortment of mainstream products—such as science fiction, best-sellers, and children's works—to complement the academic setting in the 112th Street location. The downstairs room, only accessible from a small staircase around the corner on 114th Street, is currently being renovated to house a children's playroom and a comprehensive Spanish section. But for frustrated employees, these perks of the expansion don't make up for the investment in this site, which they see as a slap in the face and further reason to fear management cutting costs at the expense of fair employee treatment. One anonymous employee—who said she actually thought the expansion was a great idea—explained, "I am afraid that he will feel as though he is spread a little thin, and I think that will actually make it harder to treat employees with respect." Amid employee complaints and arbitration, Doeblin said that what keeps him up at night is the personal investment he has made at 114th during such uncertain times for the independent bookstore industry. Doeblin said they are currently losing money, and with recent price wars among booksellers, he is concerned about the future. When he first opened Labyrinth, Book Culture's predecessor, Doeblin said he had very little to lose and very little to invest. The game has changed now. "It is not a side bet for me. I am all in," he said, adding that, in the changing landscape of bookselling, "I can't stand by and watch everything just diminish for a decade. We have to go while we still have some strength." news@columbiaspectator.com

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