Struggle At The Strand

Nov 11 2014 | 01:59 AM

    Maybe it was a coincidence, but Nicole Congleton didn’t think so. As she stood in a manager’s office at the Strand bookstore in February of 2007, getting suspended for being seven minutes late for her job in the Internet department, the 32-year-old African-American woman felt certain that the suspension had less to do with her lateness than with the color of her skin. By the time she was fired from the Strand on July 17, 2007, she was convinced she’d been unfairly targeted for firing by a management that, from her vantage point, appeared to discriminate against African Americans.

    Congleton wasn’t the only African-American woman to feel the wrath of the Strand management for work-rule infractions over the last 18 months. A 51-year-old Internet department employee named Saundra Buchanan was suspended in January of 2007 for taking an unauthorized break, her second infraction after seven years of working at the bookstore; after several subsequent write-ups from management for lateness, she was fired by the Strand in May of last year. A third, pregnant African-American employee was suspended after taking unauthorized time off from work for doctors’ visits, apparently as part of her pre-natal care.

    These allegations belie the public image of the Strand, the world’s largest used bookstoreits awning at the corner of East 12th Street and Broadway brags of an apocryphal “18 miles of books”that just celebrated its 80th year in business. The Strand is a New York institution that stands as a musty, cool symbol of the city’s rich literary life. And its co-owner (and granddaughter of its founder, Ben Bass) is Nancy Bass Wyden, who is married to one of the nation’s most liberal U.S. Senators, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, widely known for his impassioned support of equal opportunity in the workplace.

    People want to work at the Strand because of its hip, independent reputation; they relish the experience of passing the bookstore’s employment testa simple exam that measures an applicant’s knowledge of English literature. Would-be Strand employees are often young, white, college-educated kids at a fork in their lives. The Strand is everything from a summer break for indecisive twentysomethings to a job with benefits (because it’s a union shop) for low-skilled employees. The store may smell of decaying paper, but there’s romance in the air. Employees have their nametags hanging below their stylish caps but above their skinny jeans and Converse shoes.

    Tucked away from plain view on the third floor, where the Internet department and rare book section resides, the tensions of last year’s charges against the Strand by three African-American women still reverberate. It was only a year ago that the charges prompted the Strand’s union (United Auto Workers Local 2179) to post this notice: “It has come to the attention of the local that racial discrimination is occurring at Strand Bookstore. If you are African-American and have been subject to stricter disciplinary policy than non-African-American employees, please contact your shop steward or call Local 2179. -Yours, UAW Local 2179.”

    The racial discrimination allegations led to charges of unfair labor practices filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). No evidence of discrimination was ever documented against the bookstore, and the union withdrew the charges filed with the NLRB. But the bad blood between employees and management continued into the spring of this year, as the threat of a union walkout hung over tense negotiations on a new contract; the union repeatedly accused the Strand management of violating the old one.

    A strike was averted, but feelings of anger among employees at the bookstore remains. “They focus more on making money than on the enjoyment of running a bookstore,” said Trexler Chisholm, 26, who works in the rare books room on the third floor.

    “It’s a real ‘gotcha’ environment,” said another current employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “If I was quoted by name, Nancy [Wyden] would be in my face eight to nine times a week aggressively trying to get me to talk back to her, in a way she could fire me for insubordination.” This employee, and many others interviewed for this article, made clear his belief that the problems at the Strand stemmed from a single source: Nancy Bass Wyden. They believe she has worked harder than anyone to transform the Strand from an intellectual oasis to a profit-producing machine.

    Strand owners Fred Bass, left, and Nancy Bass Wyden, his daughter

    “It’s not the East village hipster bookstore it’s presented to be,” said one current 26-year-old male employee. “It’s a corporation, and it’s run like that.”

    Repeated efforts to contact Wyden over the last 10 days to comment for this story were unsuccessful. Neither Wyden nor other management officials returned several phone calls from a reporter, or made themselves available when a reporter visited the Strand on two different occasions to seek an interview.

    The Strand’s attorney, Harry Burstein of Fischer and Burstein, after initially saying that Strand president Fred Bass would answer questions for this story, later declined on Bass’ behalf to answer specific questions sent via email. This Monday, Burstein sent the following letter to the Press:“In order to protect all employees [sic] privacy rights Strand does not discuss individual employees. However, Strand Book Store has, during its 80-year history, been a leader in the area of diversity in its hiring policies and practices. Furthermore, it has, and remains committed to, a store policy that prohibits any form of discrimination it its workplace.

    “Strand proudly abides by both the letter and spirit of all applicable employment and anti-discrimination laws.”

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    In 1927, Ben Bass opened the Strand on Fourth Avenue, which was also known as Book Row, a stretch from Union Square to Astor Place filled with 48 bookstores. Today, the Strand is the only one that remains in operation. Ben’s son, Fred Bass, started working there at 13; he took over in 1956 and later moved it to its current home. It was originally 4,000 square feet; today it has grown to over 55,000 square feetnot including two small satellite locations, at the South Street Seaport and a kiosk in Central Park.

    In 80 years, the Strand has become more than a used bookstore; it stands as a symbol of a bygone era before Amazon and Barnes & Noble ruled the book industry, when intellectuals and book lovers settled into dusty alcoves to browse its vast collection of volumes. At the Strand’s 80th anniversary party last June, literary guests such as Frank McCourt and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik spoke to its greatness. Gopnik was quoted as saying the Strand was integral to his own growth as a writer and an intellectual. Now the Strand makes much of its income from selling books by the footbut before the Internet transformed the used-book business into a mail-order enterprise, the Strand attracted academics and book lovers from all over the world to its stacks that reached to the ceiling with every book imaginable. Customers climbed ladders when they weren’t sitting on them, reading and rubbing elbows with a clientele that shared their passion for the printed word.

    Its employees also symbolized that particular commitment to the life of the mind. Often, owner Fred Bass would administer the employment test himself to prospective workers, emphasizing the importance of literacy and knowledge to anyone who might just think of the Strand as a pleasant place to spend a few weeks working on the way to something else. But that’s what it was for thousands of itinerant college graduates, who signed on to employment at the Strand as much for its cool cachet as for its regular hours. After all, it paid little more than McDonald’s, and without the fringe benefits of French fries. Among its unhappy alumni were rockers Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine. It “wasn’t very friendly,” Smith has said of her time at the Strand.

    Current management still likes to think of the Strand in the same terms as its predecessors. In 2005, Wyden said to Gothamist.com, a local-news website, that while it’s hard to keep everyone who works there happy, “I can’t think of a better place to work selling books. I only hire people who love literature.”

    But in the past two years, the union has accused the Strand of violating its labor contract with those book-loving workers. The last contract expired in August 2007, and the Strand and the union went back and forth on negotiating a new contract until March 2008 while the threat of a walkout loomed. Despite the apparent financial success of the Strand in recent years, the new contract offers workers fewer benefits. One current employee described it as “the worstthe union has ever gotten with Strand.” The customer impression of the bookstore and the employee testimony of the experience of working there are growing further and further apart. The employee atmosphere is tense, with many employees asking to not be named for fear they would immediately be targeted for disciplinary action and eventually fired.

    The Strand became unionized in the late 1970s, and today the starting salary at the Strand is $9 an hourup from $7.50 an hour last year. But the union contract with the Strand only stipulates a mandatory wage increase of 52 cents a year. For people who don’t stay long, the increase doesn’t matter and $9 an hour is a comparatively good rate. But, for longtime employees, the amount can be brutal. Managers are encouraged to give additional merit raises, but are not required. One Strand employee asked not to be named in this article because he feared it might cost him the merit raise. “I don’t want it to get back to me,” he said. “If you want raises, you play the game.”

    Many employees share that fear, and blame the tense atmosphere at the Strand on Nancy Bass Wyden. Her father, Fred, still works at the shop almost every day of the week, but Wyden now works full-time at the Strand as well, after earning an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and working for three years at Exxon. Wyden introduced the selling of books arranged decoratively on shelves to the rich and famous, as well as to TV shows, including Saturday Night Live. Wyden told a New York Times reporter in November 2003 that she is glad people can appreciate books as aesthetically as they do, say, wallpaper: “I think it’s good to have books in the house; it warms things up, but I find that having books in my office is too distracting.”

    Since Wyden has become an everyday presence on the third floor of the Strand, rules have been tightened. One employee referred to Fred Bass’ way of doing things as “old school,” while describing Wyden as more concerned with profit. Indeed, she may be the reason for their strong financial position: In 2003, the Strand reported yearly revenues in excess of $20 million and credited almost 20 percent of this revenue to its online business, which Wyden has helped to develop.

    But perhaps some of those profits stem from a salary structure that almost seems to push employees out the door. The contract that just expired rewarded a “longevity recognition payment” only to workers who have remained at the Strand for 22 consecutive years. That entitles them to a paltry one-time $1,000 payment.

    When she was fired, Nicole Congleton was making $13 an hour, and she had been there seven years.

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    Congleton came to work at the Strand in November of 2000 for the same reason as hundreds, if not thousands before her: She needed money to pay her rent and the Strand seemed like it would be a great place to work. When she began at the Strand as a 25-year-old, she was in graduate school in Pace University, getting a master’s degree in publishing. She had started living at a youth hostel for $12 a day, in a room with three bunk beds and a constantly rotating list of five other roommates.

    She was immediately assigned to the third-floor Internet department, created in the late 1990s when the Strand introduced the option of buying books online. The rare books department is also on the third floor of the Strand; the entrance to both is separate from the main bookstore. Congleton’s co-workers on the third floor became her good friends. She worked in customer service and helped out as an administrative assistant. They all went out to the Grassroots Tavern after work. They nicknamed it “The Peach Pit” after the hangout on Beverly Hills 90210. Congelton’s problems at the Strand began on February 20, 2007. Over the years, she had felt increasingly singled out by the managers for her tardiness, despite the fact that many of her fellow employees often showed up to work late. According to Congleton, the rules allowed you to be up to 10 minutes late without penalty. But on February 20, Congleton was late yet againher 12th tardiness in two months. Management handed her an “employee warning record” to document her latest rule infraction, and she was suspended for one day.

    Because the Strand is a union shop, written records are required for all reportsa policy that prevents management from firing employees without a history of rule violations. Employees are encouraged by the union to file grievances in response to management write-ups if they believe they are being treated unfairly. Congleton showed up to work the following day since she thought her suspension was for only one day. Management was surprised to see her; they told her she was suspended for the whole week and instructed her to leave.

    According to the remarks written by manager Trevor Caldwell on the write-up, “[Congleton] responded angrily, in verbally abusive tones, accusing me of lying to her, saying that she is ‘sick of you people,’ and yelling, ‘you fucking bitch’ at me such that the entire floor could hear.” He reported that Congleton stuck around for another hour, “disrupting other employees’ work by engaging them in complaining conversations.” That day, Congleton filed a grievance with the union. She wrote that she had been “unfairly suspended and targeted for tardiness,” and wrote that her managers had explained employees could be up to 10 minutes late everyday without being disciplined. “Other employees were not written for doing the same thing that I did,” she claimed.

    Congleton completed her suspension and returned to work. By noon, the manager of the Internet department, Eddie Sutton, had pulled her into an office. Congleton recalled the conversation: “You’re suspended,” Sutton told her. Congleton asked for a reason. “For your conduct on the day you were suspended,” she claims Sutton said. (Sutton did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. ) “Can you do that?” she asked. “Yeah, we’ve been looking for ways that we could legally do this to you,” he allegedly replied.

    Congleton said she called the union contact, Horace Anderson, immediately and told him, “They are trying to suspend me again.” She said he instructed her not to leave until he figured out what’s going on. She said she returned to her desk, at which point, she said, Wyden came over.

    “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be suspended,” Wyden said, according to Congleton’s account. “Get out or I’m going to call security and have you forcibly removed from the building.” Congleton told her what the union contact had told her. Wyden allegedly replied, “I don’t care what Horace said.”

    Congleton said she spoke with union representative Horace Anderson about the possibility of racial discrimination at that point. According to Congleton, Anderson, who is also African American, told her he was wondering when someone was finally going to realize that all the people getting in trouble repeatedly were black. Anderson said in an interview that he “doesn’t remember” saying that to Congleton but didn’t deny it. In a recent interview, Congleton explained how she came to believe she was unfairly targeted on the basis of race.

    “At first I felt that I was increasingly singled out,” Congleton said. “Then I knew that I was being singled out, but I didn’t know for what. Until it became clear that other people that looked like me were getting in trouble. Then I made the connection, ‘Oh, it’s something to do with black women. And I really hoped it wasn’t. Because I hate pulling the race card. I think it’s deplorable. But finally I was, like, that’s what it is.”

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    The young Strand employee was pregnant. She needed to leave her post in the rare books department more often than usual, to visit the doctor more for pre-natal care. But according to employee warning records provided to the Press, Strand management continued to cite her for missing work regardless of the need for medical appointments. “[She] was pregnant and she had a complication and wasn’t given any leeway because of that,” said Trexler Chisholm, who worked in her department. (The employee, who still works at the Strand, could not be reached for comment on this story, but this account of her experiences was confirmed by several sources, as well as documents provided by a union official.)

    Management threatened to terminate her for “not keeping her full time employment obligations,” in reference to the days she’d taken off. The woman argued that she needed the days to visit the doctor, and claimed that she attempted to make up missed days. She wrote, “My managers will not allow me to make up any days before nor after the day of my appointments no matter what. Everything I ask them is no, no, no.” In response to another write-up for an unauthorized absence on March 7, 2007in which she was told that she had already used up all her personal days for the year, but that no action would be taken “given the medical aspect of this absence”the woman wrote that she was told originally that she could make up days she missed because of appointments on her personal days off. Even if she brought in a doctor’s note, she claimed, she was written up by management. “I asked for permission and [a manager] said it’s important do what I have to do, but I’ll be getting written up anyway with my doctor’s note.” The following day, March 8, the union under shop steward Brendan Wheeler (who no longer works at the Strand) began to investigate the woman’s claims, but the union said he was stopped. The grievance read, “The union protests owner Fred Bass’ actions in interrupting [the] investigation of [REDACTED]’s grievance against management.”

    On March 13, 2007, management formalized a new rule, effective immediately. It came in the form of a memo addressed to all employees, regarding medical appointments. It stated that in the event of an emergency medical or dental situation, an employee should, as soon as reasonably practical, notify a supervisor of the medical emergency and provide details about the treatment, as well as a doctor’s note. The memo stated that all non-emergency appointments had to be scheduled during non-working hours.

    In the wake of the memo, the union charged the Strand with violating the current contract by making changes to the medical plan without consulting the union. The union also accused the Strand of violating the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 by not letting the woman take time off to visit the doctor. The federal law states that employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for a variety of issues, including an employee’s right to take medical leave when he or she is unable to work because of a serious health condition. She reportedly went on paid medical leave in October.

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    Saundra Buchanan started in the third-floor Internet department at the Strand in 2000, before it had been remodeled. “There was mice running around the table,” she remembered in a recent interview. “I got some kind of fungus from rats who were on the paper.”

    But the real trouble for Buchanan began after she missed work for a doctor’s appointment in May 2007. She said she had asked in advance, in compliance with the new March 13 rules, and that management had approved it. But when she returned to work, she learned that he had been suspended for three days. She recalled that her supervisor told her she should have called the day of her appointment again to remind them of it. Buchanan said that was impossible, because her appointment was at 7 a.m.

    “After that, it was any little thing,” Buchanan said. “[Nancy] was like a dog with a bone, and she didn’t want you there anymore. She wouldn’t stop. She would just keep on.”

    Several “employee warning record” write-ups suggest that Buchanan was, indeed, being closely watched. According to one dated May 8, 2007, a manager wrote: “Ms. Buchanan left for her fifteen minute break at 12:50 p.m. She returned at 1:20 p.m. She also failed to sign in or out on the employee sign-out sheet as per the store rules.” The note continued, “Saundra tried to get paid for an extra 15 minutes that she did not work.” Given that Buchanan had not signed in or out, it seemed clear that management had nevertheless been tracking her movements closely.

    Buchanan claims that eventually she was fired for what she described as “stealing time.” Buchanan says that sometimes she would have so much work to do (Buchanan’s job was to process Internet orders) that she would ask to take her lunch at her desk. Buchanan processed orders from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and got them ready for shipping. She claimed she would get written up for not taking her mandatory hour leave from the store. However, the records filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) only cite instances where Buchanan took a break from work without signing out.

    Buchanan has a soft and slow voice and giggles easily. She recalled how she would sometimes be followed to the bathroom by management seeking to catch her “stealing time” by taking an unauthorized break. Sometimes Buchanan would take the long way around to the bathroom to see if someone would follow.

    “Sometimes I would stop short and one of the managers would almost run in to me,” Buchanan said. She claims even Nancy Bass Wyden went sometimes. “[Nancy] would actually come into the bathroom and we’d be washing our hands,” Buchanan recalled. “And she would say, ‘You should be using the bathroom on your break time!’“

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    The union wrote a grievance letter to the Strand dated February 20, 2007. It read: “The union charges management with racial discrimination,” and listed Congleton, Buchanan and the pregnant employee as the workers who had experienced discrimination. In the letter, the union demanded that the Strand hand over all of the time-clock documentation for all third-floor employees to prove that the three African-American women were unfairly scrutinized.

    The Strand didn’t respond to the letter, and so on April 11, 2007, the union wrote another letter to the Strand, this time addressed to Fred Bass. Again, it noted the allegations and demanded all time-clock cards. Finally, having not heard back from the Strand, the union brought the case to the NLRB on April 30, 2007, charging the Strand with refusing to fulfill its obligation to the union by ignoring its request for the time cards. The NLRB notified the Strand and the Strand’s lawyer, Harry Burstein, of the filing. The following day, Burstein responded to the union’s letter. “Your request is overly broad and totally unjustified,” Burstein wrote, but he agreed to meet and discuss the concerns at hand. A meeting was scheduled and then rescheduled for May 23, 2007.

    Saundra Buchanan had already been fired on May 10, but she still attended the meeting. At that meeting, Buchanan said, the Strand offered to pay her unemployment as well as compensate her for the three days she had been suspended. She said she agreed to accept the offer and to sign a document agreeing not to sue the Strand. “I should have fought more, but I just wanted to get out of there,” Buchanan said.

    In the wake of that meeting, on June 14, the union dropped its charge of unfair labor practices against management.

    On July 13, 2007, Nicole Congleton was fired from the Strand. In March, she began a two-day-a-week internship at HarperCollins.

    Buchanan still hasn’t been able to find a job to replace her position at the Strand. “It was a real emotional experience because I had planned to stay there until retirement,” she said. “I’m older and it gets real frightening because they are always looking for young people [to hire].”

    The pregnant employee remains an employee of the Strand, though it is unclear when, or whether, she will return to the corner of Broadway and 12th Street anytime soon.