In an age when online retail has killed the storefront marketplace, the city’s literary-inclined still find refuge inside the Strand Book Store’s vast collection of new and used volumes. On a recent afternoon inside the landmark at 12th Street and Broadway, Fred Bass was standing in a corner of the ground floor, dressed in his trademark suspenders, a solid green shirt, and a smart navy blue tie. While most patrons might only know him as a friendly clerk and address him by his first name — as printed in simple white letters on a large red plastic nametag — Bass is also the owner of the Strand.
In recent days, the 55,000-square-foot store has become a battleground of labor discontent. On April 5, a majority of the store’s 140 unionized employees rejected a contract aimed at freezing wages and slicing benefits. Fearing that the landmark’s storied bond with its employees could soon disappear, workers continue to negotiate with supervisors.
But Bass, 83, believes that his store faces a larger financial challenge. With the rise of e-readers and paperless literature, the book industry has reached a crossroads, and Bass yearns to keep the Strand an entrenched part of the cityscape.
“Anyone can just stop on by, buy physical copies of hard-to-find readings, and talk to people who share their interest in books,” he said. “This is truly a one-of-a-kind place.”
With store sales down seven percent since 2009, however, Bass admits that his business is struggling and he must cut costs in order to remain viable. “Our expenses have skyrocketed,” he said, “and there is economic pressure that we just can’t avoid.”
Since 1927, when Bass’s father, Benjamin, opened the Strand, the store’s reputation with labor activists has been positive. Bass claims that he has never laid off a single employee. And while other retailers do not allow unionization, United Auto Workers Local 2179 has supported much of the store’s non-management staff for over 35 years.
“Strand has such a strong bond with the community,” said Chris McCallion, who began working at the bookstore in September 2010. “But for many of the people in this city, debt is not payable. We are struggling just to pay our rent every month.”
McCallion, 22, spent a year at The New School for Jazz before dropping out in 2008. Upon working at Strand, his starting wage was $9. Every six months, he and his fellow workers got raises that ranged from 25 to 50 cents an hour. But last September without explanation, the pay increases stopped.
“When you work 40 hours a week, you don’t have time to read, write or express yourself,” McCallion added. “You’re just poor and exploited. Unless people gather at the workplaces where they spend most of their time, there is no way out.”
Strand employees’ wages have been stagnant since their most recent union contract expired last August. The recently rejected three-year deal would have frozen employee wages for 18 additional months, while raising health insurance premiums from $10 per week to $15. It would have also cut the yearly personal and sick day limit from nine days to five during its first two years.
In addition, workers hired during or after September 2011 would have been subject to a different, less inclusive contract from those hired beforehand. Employees argue that such an agreement would have developed tensions between newer hires and veteran staff.
“I have never seen such a hard-lined proposal,” said Will Bobrowski, 31, who has worked at the bookstore for nearly a decade. “The simple fact that management wants to freeze our wages shows that Strand is facing difficult times, and this is our wake-up call to keep negotiating.”
Although employees hope to reach a solution without resorting to a strike, McCallion believes that picket lines and demonstrations are never beyond consideration.
“We can take a stand by staying together,” he added. “Workers have power when they self-organize.”
Bass insists that the Strand will continue its normal operations while both sides seek a compromise. He will fly to London next week, hoping to add more used and rare books to the store’s world-famous collection.
“Employees have handled the situation professionally so far,” Bass said. ”I just wish circumstances were different and we could do more to compensate them.”