Book Soup, West Hollywood’s storied bookstore, unionizes amid a larger organizing wave
The employees of Book Soup, West Hollywood’s self-proclaimed “bookseller to the great and infamous,” are embarking on a new chapter as members of a union.
Last month Vroman’s, which owns the bookstore, voluntarily recognized its employees’ union, marking a big victory for the dozen or so booksellers who will be represented.
At the forefront of employees’ demands are wage increases and additional staffing; among their concerns are disability access, fairer distribution of labor, greater transparency from leadership, and “democratic decision making in the workplace,” according to a social media post. The union is currently in bargaining.
“There were issues we had that were ongoing that weren’t being addressed … and the union was our way of setting certain boundaries, which is healthy to do in any relationship,” said Audrey Kaufman, senior supervisor at Book Soup and organizing committee member. “We had seen other independent bookstores in the area and around the country unionize around the same time and that was inspiring — that we could set those boundaries and have those legal protections from retribution.”
Unions have indeed boomed across many industries since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and booksellers — a workforce where unions were once rare — are joining the ranks. While bookshops like Portland’s legendary Powell’s and the Strand in New York City have long been unionized, job losses, furloughs, bookstore closures and other hardships sparked by the pandemic have inspired a new generation of booksellers to organize.
Victor Serrano, organizing coordinator for the Communications Workers of America District 9, with which Book Soup’s union is affiliated, said unionizing at smaller businesses like independent bookstores is a relatively new phenomenon.
“Traditionally, unions never really organized anything small, it was always on a big scale, so the fact that a lot of these smaller businesses are forming unions is saying something,” he said. He added that the nationwide union wave — hitting everything from an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island to hundreds of Starbucks stores and beyond — is being driven largely by millennials and members of Gen Z. “They’re a younger generation and they want things done differently.”
The pandemic has also been a major factor. Operating bookstores during the COVID era raised questions about how to adequately protect the “health and safety of their employees,” Serrano added, “which put a lot of employees up in arms to want to do more and be more active.”
In California, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Moe’s Books in Berkeley and Skylight Books in Los Feliz are among the shops that have also unionized recently. But workers in other sectors of the publishing industry are also demanding better protections and benefits from their managers.
Last Wednesday, unionized employees at HarperCollins held a one-day strike to pressure their publisher to accept a new contract, which includes higher pay and better family leave benefits. The union’s contract expired at the end of last year and the parties have not reached a new agreement.
Before the pandemic, Book Soup had a roster of about 25 on-call staff, part-time and full-time, to help run the store, with at least six people scheduled to work each day.
When the pandemic hit and nonessential businesses were forced to close in 2020, many Book Soup employees were laid off or furloughed, and most were not rehired or replaced when the store reopened at full capacity. Those six daily workers were whittled down to three or four, increasing the workload per shift.
Julia Cowlishaw, CEO of Vroman’s and Book Soup, said staffing was modified to comply with safety regulations and occupancy limits, but added that staffing increased as restrictions eased.
Current and former staff, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said leadership was initially reluctant to hire more people. When they did start searching for new hires, few were applying, and some employees believe it was because of the pay. The starting hourly wage for Book Soup booksellers is $16.50, with a 25-cent bump for supervisors, but that will change thanks to a minimum wage increase in West Hollywood that went into effect this month. The new provision will incrementally boost pay for hourly employees until July 2023, by which point they should be making $18.77 an hour.
“We have been working to hire consistently since reopening and the payroll hours budgeted for Book Soup are equivalent to 2019,” said Cowlishaw, adding that they’ve been short on personnel because of the pandemic. “Staffing challenges are not exclusive to our Book Soup location, and several times we’ve utilized outside recruitment to help with hiring. We’ve also adapted our procedures to expedite both hiring and onboarding.”
As for employee claims about the pay, Cowlishaw said there’s a “general shortage of workers, and finding people with the aptitude, availability and flexibility needed for staffing an independent bookstore is a challenge” — a challenge that remained, she added, even when they implemented a $2 increase in holiday season pay.
“Retail bookselling, and in particular independent bookselling, has always operated on a very slim profit margin,” said Cowlishaw. “The last two years, like for many, have been extraordinarily challenging financially and operationally.”
Murmurings about unionizing began to build at the West Hollywood store last summer, but the stress and chaos of the holiday season stymied any action.
Current and former staff members described a stressful work environment in which low pay has met with high inflation, while frequent turnover and a lack of clarity from management fostered an atmosphere of instability.
Natalie Mattox, a former Book Soup manager and bookseller, said poor communication was a major grievance. “They would mandate changes and made assumptions about how things were being run at the store, but they were rarely present to observe for themselves what was actually happening.”
“Communication in times of change and uncertainty is always challenging,” said Cowlishaw. “We do our best to listen, keep everyone updated, and to address their concerns.”
On May 5, workers at Book Soup publicly expressed their intent to unionize. A month later, after they filed for an election and braced themselves for a fight, Vroman’s voluntarily recognized the union.
At 10 bookstores across the city, from Venice to the Arts District, customers and owners spoke to The Times about their favorite shops.
“We always say, ‘We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,’” said Serrano, “and in this case our hopes were better than our preparations … it turned out to be a relief in the end.”
“We care about our colleagues at Book Soup,” said Cowlishaw, “and we are optimistic about finding common ground and a path toward a healthy working environment for the long-term viability of Book Soup and the people who make Book Soup the legendary bookstore that it has become.”
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