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Want a Living Wage? You Won’t Find It Working at Most Indie Bookstores

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

This week, news broke that the workers at Barnes & Noble’s flagship shop in Union Square, New York City, voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) — and not by a small amount. Ninety-seven percent of staff voted in favor of taking part in the union. In the past few months, several other B&N shops voted in favor of unionizing as well, including Barnes & Noble College Booksellers at Rutgers University with RWDSU and Barnes & Noble workers in Hadley, Massachusetts with UFCW Local 1459.

“It’s a disappointment that humane wages & employment safety are subjects that Barnes & Noble has hesitated to offer from the beginning of employment. Any worker at Barnes & Noble, at any level or any position, deserves courtesy,” said Paige Lyerly, a bookseller at the Union Square store. “This union ensures our financial security, employment safety, & justified respect that we should have been granted from the start.”

The RWDS has boasted a number of new memberships in recent months, including three independent bookstores in New York City: McNally Jackson, Goods for the Study, and Book Culture.

But why would bookstore workers need to unionize? Isn’t the job a calling? A dream for book lovers? Much like the long-discussed vocational awe that keeps library workers underpaid, overworked, and poorly treated, the same idea perpetuates in bookstores.

This is especially true in indie bookstores, where there is a lack of a big structure, several storefronts, and opportunities to market nationwide to make more money. Indie bookselling is too often seen as a calling and a respectable place to work and indeed, while these may be true, those beliefs are why pay for those who work in these institutions often sits at minimum wage, often do not include full-time hours, and often do not include healthcare, time off, or any additional benefits. Much as the fringe benefit of access to review copies might be nice, it does not pay the bills, whether you’re in New York City, Seattle, or a smaller community in the Midwest.

And while the pandemic led to an increase in diverse independent bookstores — something the industry has patted itself on the back for since — indie bookstores still employ a predominantly white, predominantly female workforce. Low wages and lack of benefits hinder the industry’s ability to better reflect the diversity of the country at large.

The average salary, according to the American Booksellers Association’s ABACUS survey — which appears to be an inaccessible document to those without a membership — is $13.69 an hour. This average accounts for stores in places that have a lower cost of living, as well as places such as San Francisco and New York City, where the cost of living is among the highest in the country. Managers average anywhere between $14 and $21 an hour.

At $14 an hour, the full-time salary of an employee comes out to under $30,000 a year before taxes. A single adult without children would need to make $16.61 in Iowa City, Iowa, to have a living wage; compare that to San Francisco, where a single adult without children would need to make $23.73 an hour to have a living wage. The numbers grow exponentially for those who have children.

Note that a living wage is different than minimum wage. Minimum wage is the lowest amount an employer can legally pay an employee; it is not related to the needs of the employee but instead is about the employer’s legal responsibility to the government. A living wage, on the other hand, is what one full-time worker must make in order to cover basic needs and remain self sufficient. This includes costs with food, childcare, health care, housing, transportation, civic engagement, broadband, and other necessities. The MIT Living Wage calculator, used here, also considers the costs related to income and payroll taxes.

Living wage does not include student loan debt. For booksellers, this is often a less-pressing issue than other sectors of the book world such as libraries, as most bookseller jobs do not have degree requirements. This does not mean that booksellers do not have student debt, but rather, one reason wages may look as they do is because there is less emphasis on formal education for the position.

Katy Hershberger at Publisher’s Marketplace dove deep into the reality of indie bookstore wages in a powerful piece earlier this month. The story, which you need a subscription to read in full, offers some insights worth highlighting and digs into the different models indie bookstores utilize to stay afloat and pay their workforce. Of note from the article and the database created by Publishers Lunch on indie bookstore salaries:

  • New York City’s famous bookstore The Strand starts its employees at $15/hour, increasing .50-.70 an hour for every year of longevity. Interestingly, the store is unionized.
  • Additional New York City bookseller salaries: Astoria Bookshop, $38,000 annually for an assistant manager; Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, $17/hour; The Lit. Bar in the Bronx, $21/hour for an assistant manager; McNally Jackson, $16.25-$17.75/hour.

The living wage as a single individual without children in New York City is $22.51/hour. Bronx’s The Lit. Bar gets closest, and it is noteworthy that the owner is a Black and Puerto Rican woman.

  • Kepler’s Books — which operates as both a nonprofit and a for-profit — in Menlo Park, California, offers $20/hour. This is up from $9/hour in 2012.

The living wage for a single individual without children in the San Mateo area is $26.63/hour.

  • Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas starts at $16/hour for booksellers and $19/hour for managers. Raven operates, too, on a co-op profit sharing model, so profits at the end of the year are potentially more money in the pockets of those who are member owners in the business. The store also does not offer merit raises. Instead, everyone gets the same annual raise.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Lawrence, Kansas, is $16.04/hour.

  • Tattered Cover in Colorado Springs, Colorado, begins at $14/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is $17.48/hour.

  • E. Shaver Booksellers in Savannah, Georgia, $15/hour. Also in Georgia, Avid Bookshop (Athens) offers an annual salary for a full-time bookseller of $25,000.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Savannah is $17.32 and $16.29 in Athens.

  • Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Illinois, starting at $32,000 annually.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Evanston is $18.72/hour or about $39,000/year.

  • Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Massachusetts, $15.50/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Beverly is $22.57/hour.

  • Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Literati Books, $15/hour and West Bloomfield’s Schuler Books, $12/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Ann Arbor is $18.67/hour and in West Bloomfield, $16.57/hour.

  • Oblong Books in Millerton, New York, begins at $15/hour, moving to $16/hour after six months.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Millerton is $18.32/hour.

  • Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, which does have a union, $15/hour for booksellers, up to $25.49/hour for store manager.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Portland is $21.58/hour.

  • Charter Books in Newport, Rhode Island, pays its Events Manager between $32,000-$35,000/year.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Newport is $18.25/hour or about $38,000/year.

  • Austin, Texas’s beloved Book People starts its booksellers at $13/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Austin is $18.15/hour.

  • Prince Books in Norfolk, Virginia begins its booksellers at $14/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Norfolk is $18.02/hour.

  • Olympia, Washington’s Kings Books, $16.25/hour for booksellers.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Olympia is $18.05/hour.

  • In Washington, D.C., Second Story Books starts its booksellers at $17/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Washington, D.C., is $21.67/hour.

  • Madison, Wisconsin’s feminist bookstore A Room of One’s Own begins its receivers — so not booksellers — at $17/hour.

The living wage for a single individual without children in Madison is $17.49. This is the closest to a living wage on the list.

The article is well worth the read, as it offers even more insight into the wide range of models bookstores use to not only maintain viability but to offer payment and incentives to the heart and soul of its business: its people. In a world where booksellers, including those in the story, cite the threat of AI, of algorithms, of Amazon, and of other digital tools meant to get people to buy books from faceless sellers, perhaps it is time to keep putting pressure on the industry to create a healthier and more stable means for those people to thrive.

Indie bookstores are cornerstones in a community, but they are also a privilege. It is a privilege for them to exist in a community and it is a privilege to have the means to work for them — nobility alone won’t keep them afloat. This is the same discussion being had with libraries and within education, too. These jobs, so often seen as dreamy or as a calling, are coded in language that undermines their reality: you need to have another job, several other jobs, no debt, no bills, and no other obligations to survive in any place in the country to take one.

As we see more bookstores, both independent and corporate, choose unionization, it will be fascinating to see how the landscape is forced to change. As Paveen Maden, founder of an industry-wide series of conversations called Reimagining Bookstores said to Hershberger, “[S]taff and leaders of every bookstore should question if their current model can deliver acceptable living wages for everyone in their store.”

“If not,” he added, “they should begin the work to reimagine their bookstore so they can pay living wages. This work is critically needed across our industry because we have become stuck in an institutionalized system of paying poverty-level wages and a set of social and cultural norms has developed to justify these wages.”