Wage theft is when your boss doesn’t pay you what you’ve already earned. When I learned that Massachusetts had “blue laws,” that my bosses weren’t obeying them, and had shorted me around three thousand dollars, it was wage theft.
This was the law: retail employees were to be paid at a “premium” rate on Sundays and holidays, time-and-a-half, the same as overtime. But none of the booksellers where I worked had ever been paid it. And while not being paid overtime is a textbook example of wage theft, when I tell people, they are happy to qualify it for me with a “Well…” or an “Okay, but…” I don’t know where this instinct comes from. Maybe it’s because “wage theft” makes it sound premeditated, more like a crime. (But it was a crime!) Or maybe it’s because I worked at an independent bookstore, and indie bookstores are beloved pillars of the community. (What would that mean about the community?) Maybe it’s because it doesn’t makes sense that an independent bookstore would do something like this. Everyone knows indie bookstores are thriving! (Which is true—it’s the people who work in them who are struggling.)
I found out when I was trying to see if I could afford to take a sick day. I felt like I was coming down with something, but taking a day off meant losing a not-insubstantial chunk of my monthly take-home pay ($11.50 an hour). Since there were sick hours adding up in a box labeled “time-off accrual” on my pay stubs—and surely they had to amount to something—I went to mass.gov to check the law. But they amounted to literally nothing, as it turned out: Massachusetts businesses only have to provide paid sick leave if they have more than eleven employees, and we had ten. My “sick days” meant I couldn’t be fired for staying home sick (as long as I wasn’t sick more than five days per year).
But I learned something else. There were links to related pages and I clicked the one about “blue laws,” which I didn’t know we had in Massachusetts.
Later that day I emailed the bookstore’s owners. Is there a reason our bookstore is exempt from blue laws, I asked, or was this an oversight?
They responded the same night. They’d heard that other area bookstores had to pay the premium rate, they said, because their booksellers were unionized, but that otherwise there was some exemption. They said they would investigate, that they’d talk to their lawyer and get back to me.
After that the story gets so routine you could probably write it yourself. When I followed up a few days later, they said their lawyer was on vacation but that they’d update payroll and we’d receive the premium pay on Sundays and holidays from then on. When some of the other booksellers and I contacted the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, they only sent a form letter saying the matter was too small for them to investigate personally, but we were welcome to pursue legal action (on our own time and at our own expense). I found some free legal clinics on wage theft, but only once-a-month and while I was scheduled to work. Ten days after the first email, I followed up again; “still the same conflicting intel,” they said, “but when we told our lawyer that we started paying 1.5 for sundays and holidays, the matter dropped. (lawyers are expensive!) let me know if it’s not reflected in your check.” A coworker who already planned to quit asked the owners specifically about back pay–which I hadn’t had the courage to do—and they told her no, they weren’t going to pay it, and they said it in writing.
I ended up speaking to a lawyer, who offered to represent me on a contingency fee basis: I wouldn’t have to pay if we lost, and the bookstore would be responsible for my legal fees if I won. But he recommended I not move forward until I got a new job. It isn’t legal to retaliate against an employee for bringing a case, he told me, but, you know, it also isn’t legal to ignore blue laws.
I said thank you, I’ll consider my options.
One day in November one of the owners called me into the office at the bookstore. She gave me $500 in cash and $500 in store credit, about a third of what I was owed. I spent the store credit on gifts for the holidays and I looked for a new job. I ignored a follow-up call from the lawyer and tried not to wallow in the humiliation. I was not successful. Even now it feels like admitting something shameful: I was fooled, maybe, or I’m some kind of miser. A few people asked me, what if they can’t afford to pay back pay and they go out of business? You hear it more than once and it’s easy to forget it’s not a ransom, that you didn’t pluck the number out of nowhere.
It’s hard to compare independent bookstores to other kinds of retail stores. Bookstores sell a cultural product and booksellers insist that bookstores can’t be compared to other retail stores because they sell a cultural product. And bookstores don’t exploit their employees more than other retail. But what grates is when bookstores market themselves as more than stores, as community hubs.
“Independent bookstores act as community anchors,” the American Booksellers Association declares, at the bottom of every page on their site; “they serve a unique role in promoting the open exchange of ideas, enriching the cultural life of communities, and creating economically vibrant neighborhoods.”
This same lofty idealism justifies why booksellers don’t need to be paid a living wage, like employees of nonprofits or teachers: because bookstores are so vital for the community, the assumption goes, the job should be reward enough itself. The work is so important that maybe booksellers should make personal sacrifices, working well below the value of their labor.
I spoke to around twenty booksellers while I was writing this, and I was struck by how many are willing to make trade-offs. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. “Independent booksellers consistently describe their work as more than just a way to make a living, and more than just a means of escaping the constraints that come from working for somebody else,” writes Laura Miller, in her 2006 book, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption; “These booksellers see themselves as bettering society by making books available.” Plenty of the booksellers I spoke to saw bookselling as a calling. Because of course they do! If they weren’t willing to make sacrifices, they couldn’t still be booksellers. And how else could bookstores get away with paying them—they, who generally have to have a college degree; who have to spend a lot of unpaid time reading across all genres and topics; who have to have at least a little knowledge about everything, from the ancient Greeks to Dog Man 7: Brawl of the Wild; who, at at least one store, famously have to correctly answer quiz questions before being hired—so little, while so successfully preserving an image as a (generally progressive) force for social good?
And it is so little. A bookseller in Southern California with eight years of experience still earns less than $20 per hour; “I can’t think of another industry where you could work for eight years and still be making that little,” he said. A different Southern California bookseller/assistant events manager earns $17.50. A bookseller/assistant events manager in the Boston area is earning $14. A former bookseller in Northern California was making $14.25, a quarter above the minimum wage. A part time bookseller in Chicago makes $13, the city’s minimum wage. A former bookseller in Minnesota was salaried after two years at $30,000 while a bookseller and events manager in Tennessee started at $25,000, six years ago, and now makes $31,500.
I started at $11 per hour and ended around eighteen months later at $11.50, and as far as I know, none of the booksellers at that store even earned $15. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2400 per month, which I could cover if I worked 50 hours a week, didn’t pay taxes, and didn’t need money for food, utilities, medical care, or literally anything else.
The booksellers I spoke to reported quite a range of benefits—in one year, for example, a Bay Area bookseller accrued three weeks of vacation time, and in the same time period a Pennsylvania bookseller got three days. But some booksellers told me that their benefits were mostly on paper. Not being fired for calling in sick or going on vacation doesn’t make it financially viable, after all. A Minnesota bookseller told me she has ten paid vacation days per year, but the store has so few employees that taking time off means she’d have to make up the missed hours working overtime. A bookstore in California offered a health insurance program, but gave employees a fifty-cent raise if they didn’t enroll.
It’s not so bleak for everyone. Unionized stores generally fight for better benefits and act as safeguards against labor law violations; I talked to a handful of booksellers whose stores had some kind of profit sharing, which can make a big difference.
But… I don’t know. There’s a bookstore owned by people who, all evidence suggests, really give a fuck and want to do right by their booksellers. They pay at least $15 per hour, and I heard one of the owners say on a podcast how much is required of booksellers; “If you’re a college graduate, and you’ve spent all this time reading, in addition to going to college—yeah, you deserve $15 an hour. Period.” But when his interlocutor mentioned a bookstore that had profit sharing, the owner was quick to say it wouldn’t work at his store. (And it wouldn’t, yet—the store is young and not yet profitable.*) But “It’s also a matter of loyalty,” he said, and explained that he couldn’t envision employees staying longer than a year. “I would love to find a bookseller who I know would be around long enough. Right now it just hardly seems even worth doing all the work. No one would qualify, because they won’t stick around long enough.”
Tell me, what are they going to stick around for? The bookstore owner said all of his employees are part-time—they’re either in grad school or working other part-time jobs. Are they supposed to stick around for a part-time job that pays $15 per hour?
What is there to be loyal to?
IndieBound—an ABA project—has a section on its website dedicated to answering Why Support Independents? One answer is that “Local businesses create higher-paying jobs for our neighbors.” But you can also find a page at the ABA website on “The Growing Debate Over Minimum Wage,” warning that “a minimum wage increase that is too drastic could result in reduced staff hours, lost jobs, or, worse, a store going out of business.” There’s also an “Indie Fact Sheet” to print out and give to local politicians; “Many indies pay more than the current minimum wage already for senior and full-time staff,” it says; “They do this because offering superior customer service is one of their competitive advantages—it is what separates them from their chain and remote, online retailing competitors. This also helps indies retain and attract good employees.”
See? Many bookstores pay their booksellers more than the minimum wage! It’s not their problem that that same minimum wage isn’t enough to cover a one-bedroom in any state in the country. It’s not their problem that inflation has eroded the value of the minimum wage. It’s not their problem that low wages are an affront to basic dignity or that higher minimum wages save lives. They’re just fiercely committed to their neighbors and their communities.
The ABA is happy to help its member stores fight even modest wage increases. “If the minimum wage is raised,” the Indie Fact Sheet continues, “it inevitably means indies will have to increase the wages of senior and full-time staff, in addition to increasing the wages of any minimum-wage workers. This increases the ripple effect. A seemingly ‘insignificant’ wage increase can have a dramatic effect on the bottom line, sending a profitable store into the red.”
There’s no mention of the dramatic effect an increase in the minimum wage could have on employees.
At Winter Institute–an annual ABA conference for independent booksellers–there’s a town hall where members can share their concerns. According to the ABA’s coverage of the event, an independent bookstore owner went to the mic to speak about the minimum wage. “I’m very happy the staff is getting a pay bump,” she said, “but that’s a huge adjustment to make every 12 months and once you get a handle on it, then it’s going up again. I feel like this seems to be going countrywide and that is something that is extra important to our nonexistent margins.”
Why this framing? Why not ask how other stores are handling the adjustment? Why not pay employees a living wage now so as not to have to change business model every year? Why does a bookstore owner feel comfortable getting up and saying this in front of an audience of booksellers?
If your local indie bookstore skirts labor laws or advocates against them, at the expense of its employees, can you still be sanctimonious for shopping there? Is your local indie bookstore thriving if its employees skip doctor’s appointments they can’t afford? If your local indie bookstore’s trade group doesn’t have resources for booksellers on paid sick leave, health insurance, or wage theft–in an industry famous for its tiny margins–is it an industry you’d recommend joining?
“We find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of being believers in social and economic justice while struggling to pay our employees a salary they can survive on,” writes Elayna Trucker on shopping local and running a bookstore; “We urge our customers to Shop Local but make hardly enough to do so ourselves. It is an unintentional hypocrisy, one that has gone largely ignored and unaddressed. So where does all that leave us? Rather awkwardly clutching our money, it seems… All of this brings up the most awkward question of all: does a business that can’t afford to pay its employees a living wage deserve to be in business?”
I am so glad I don’t have to come up with an answer. I have no idea. I haven’t the faintest idea at all.
In the end it was a tweet. I left the bookstore after the holidays and started a new job in January. In February, after a night of shitty sleep, I tweeted, “I have been spending hours lying awake at night doing nothing but feeling this intense shame like a stone in my chest about experiencing wage theft at my last job and I am sincerely just hoping that tweeting about it is enough to make it stop so let’s see if it works.”
A day or two later I got an email. “It’s filtered back to me that the $1000 we gave you to settle the Sunday pay issue,” they said, “didn’t resolve it.” They said some things about how they hadn’t known until I told them. They cut me a check for the back pay that same day.
I didn’t delete the tweet. I don’t know if any of my coworkers got back pay.
A little later, I read an article about the student-run Harvard Shop in Cambridge. The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office found that the store owed almost $50,000 in back pay to their employees and $5,600 in fines for violating blue laws. “In this case, we unknowingly did make a mistake in how we were paying our students for Sunday and holiday pay,” the store’s manager said.
I only saw the article because the union I joined at my new job shared it on Twitter.
In Seasonal Associate, Heike Geissler’s barely-fictionalized account of her time working at an Amazon fulfillment center, she writes: “What you and I can’t do, because you and I don’t want to, is to think your employer into a better employer, and to compare these conditions to even worse, less favorable conditions, so as to say: It’s not all that bad. It could be worse. It used to be worse. We don’t do that. You and I want the best and we’re not asking too much.”
I loved bookselling. I loved it for the same reasons everyone does: the community of readers and booksellers, the joy when someone came back into the store and says I recommended the perfect read, the pride when authors reach out directly to say how much my work meant to them. The free books, the discounts, the advance copies, all of it. And I do believe that bookstores can be forces for social good, insofar as books can be forces for social good, which I think they can. It is self-evidently better to get your books from a local store than from Amazon, and for precisely the reasons the IndieBound website gives.
But it’s not enough to Not Be Amazon, and framing bookstores as moral exemplars regardless of how they treat their employees isn’t to the benefit of booksellers. Bookstores “thrive” by hiding how much their booksellers struggle. “Any thriving I do personally is in spite of my store,” one of the booksellers I spoke to said. Working at a bookstore is not as bad as working at an Amazon warehouse; I didn’t walk dozens of miles per day and my bathroom breaks weren’t monitored. But are we willing to let that be the baseline?
*clarification added after publication