Book Culture looks To The Future

Oct 22 2014 | 10:50 AM

Upper West Side Book Culture has had quite the summer. With wage disputes and union votes, a thick line was drawn between the store’s owners and workers. As fall begins, the line has thinned and the bookstore is aiming to resurface bigger and better. In late June five employees were let go on the basis of participating in votes to join forces with the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union. Owner Chris Doeblin defended his actions saying that four of the workers were managers and therefore were not allowed to participate in a union election. Other employees counteracted his claim saying that the designation of manager was purely a title and was not actually accompanied with managerial privileges. Soon after the employees were removed, the RWDSU requested a boycott. Sales began to decrease at the Morningside Heights 112th Street store. Columbia University students and staff who regularly frequented the bookstore for class necessities slowly withdrew their business, and even picketed outside the storefront. Nearly two weeks later, Doeblin and co-owner Annie Hendrick released an email to their staff announcing the reinstatement of the four previously fired managers. Staff later discovered that the fifth employee, Casey McNamara, who was fired for eavesdropping on Doeblin, accepted a severance package. Phil Andrews, director of RWDSU’s retail organizing project, helped to settle the dispute and accepted Doeblin’s request for compromise. The union agreed to retract their complaint against Doeblin with the National Labor Relations Board and in exchange Doeblin rehired the employees. A contract between the company and the union, that was recently finalized, was also drawn up. The three-year contract, which settled last Wednesday, guarantees a wage increase from $9.50 to $10.25 for Book Culture employees, allotted raises, affordable healthcare and representation with the RWDSU. The contract also takes into account Doeblin’s plans for a third Book Culture location, slated for the former antique store Olde Good Things at 450 Columbus Avenue, with an opportunity for the employees that will be hired there to request union representation as well. In order to afford the steep $35,000 monthly rent of the new Book Culture site, Doeblin emptied out his retirement funds. Doeblin told Al Jazeera America that he had no back-up plan if this West 82nd St. store fails. However he remains confident in his decision to carry on and strengthen the small business scene. Doeblin also dismissed any chance of the union disputes affecting Book Culture’s outcome, “It has been several months and I think it has long since been water under the bridge,” said Doeblin. “I don’t think it is having any effect now.” Doeblin remarked that the past coverage could actually help in boosting Book Culture’s presence. More people are learning of the struggles of the bookstore and are more inclined to take their business to Doeblin. “To many, we are worth congratulating and supporting for being able to keep books part of this neighborhood and this city and to aspire to open a new store,” Doeblin commented. “I think those that would denigrate us are relatively few.” Doeblin said that Book Culture is trying its best in the face of big business. “We are planning to run our business as well as we can so that we can create as many good jobs as we can and sell as many books into our city as we can. Over half the independent bookstores in this country have closed since Amazon opened. They have just 14 employees for every $10 million in revenue. We have less than half that much revenue and we have over 30 employees. Every chance we get we’re going to pay more to our employees.”