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Working Woes at the Strand, Illustrated

As Borders, B. Dalton, and many other big chain bookstores get kicked out the door by Amazon, a few privately-owned outposts still provide a respite for book-lovers who like to both browse in brick-and-mortar shops and support local businesses. Some of the best-known independent bookstores continue to thrive despite their financial pressures—stores like Powell’s in Portland, City Lights in San Francisco, The Last Bookstore in L.A., BookPeople in Austin, Faulkner House in New Orleans, Quimby’s in Chicago, and Busboys and Poets in Washington D.C.. And New York is home to the self-described “18 miles of books” stacked inside Strand Books.

Strand Books (or, as it’s colloquially called, “The Strand”) was established by Ben Bass on Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue in 1927, just one among the almost fifty other bookstores that at that time made up “Book Row.” Ben’s son Fred took over the store in 1956 and moved it to its current location at East 12th street and Broadway. Fred’s daughter Nancy, who is now co-owner, married Democratic senator Ron Wyden in 2005. Last year, Wyden received a 90 percent lifetime ranking from the AFL-CIO for his pro-labor voting record. The Strand’s employees are organized; they joined the UAW Local 2179 in 1976.

If the above description might make it sound like the Strand is a non-oppressive and easy place to work, Greg Farrell’s slim new graphic novel On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore (Microcosm Publishing, 128 pages, $11.95) challenges you to revise that opinion. On the Books tells the true story of the contract dispute between the Strand and its more than 150 unionized employees, one that stretched from September 2011 (just as Occupy Wall Street was beginning, coincidentally) to June 2012. If you may have thought you were keeping your hands clean as a consumer by shopping at an indy bookstore like the Strand, it’ll make you think twice.

As Farrell tells it, the store had wanted to freeze workers’ wages for a year and a half, increase employees’ weekly healthcare contributions, and reduce their allowed number of both personal and sick days. (According to a Strand spokesperson, the starting hourly wage is $10, and $10.25 after a brief probationary period.) A union-busting, two-tier system was also part of the management’s deal, says Farrell, which would encourage the current employees to approve the contract—and in so doing, pass more of the hair-shirt-like austerity measures onto the backs of anyone who came to work at the store thereafter. The owners justified this by saying that their expenses were rising and that e-book sales were cutting into the store’s profits. Farrell disputes that; he points anecdotally to the day after Christmas, 2013, when the store reported its highest-ever daily sales figure in its eighty-six-year history.

As Farrell tells his story, he mixes in monologues from his co-workers, background details about the Strand (including both its famous tote bag and its infamous sidewalk sprinkler system with which it fends off homeless people), and information about the UAW (both its happier times under Walter Reuther, and its decline in membership and influence over the past thirty-five years). If it had been executed a little more rigorously, Farrell’s work could have taken its place in a strong tradition of journalistic comics —like Joe Sacco’s first-person reporting from the Middle East or the Balkans, Olivier Kugler’s complex and beautiful montage drawings for The Guardian, or all of those Introducing and For Beginners books.

Unfortunately, Farrell’s comics sometimes fall short. He seems to have become bored with the prospect of having to draw the same characters in the same, slightly-varied positions page after page after page. So instead, he often draws figures in the frame that seem apropos of nothing, like rapper 50 Cent or director George Lucas. In his co-worker monologues, he’ll often replace a human being with an animal or a mythological creature, or a guy on a diving board wearing a Speedo.

A selection from On the Books, written and illustrated by Greg Farrell.
A selection from On the Books, written and illustrated by Greg Farrell.

It’s amusing, but, along with some errors of fact (in one scene he misidentifies the president of the UAW), it made me wonder who edited it. Surprisingly, this information was listed on the copyright page: Joe Biel, the director of Microcosm, the company that published On the Books. If you Google that publisher’s name, the three trending words that auto-fill after it are “lawsuit,” “abuse,” and “split.” If you’re willing to take a trip down the rabbit hole of West Coast anarchist journalism, you’ll find some alarming accusations against Microcosm. If these stories are to be believed, many people in the zine community feel burned by the publisher, and argue that (even in its own indy, low-budget way) it is the Goliath of ‘zine distributors—just as the Strand seems to fail to live up the “David” image many booklovers project onto it.[*] Discovering this, I was willing to give Farrell the benefit of the doubt for the missteps in his otherwise admirable project.

At the end of his tale, the Strand employees agree to a new contract, but Farrell doesn’t include the details, other than the fact that it includes the two-tier system that the store’s management had wanted. He ends the book with obligatory optimism, saying, “Change is possible and battles are won in their own way.” He follows this remark by noting, ominously, that the UAW raised its dues in June of this year for the first time in forty-seven years, and that Strand workers had to re-enter contract negotiations in July.

With so many policy discussions about raising the minimum wage going on today, it’s encouraging to see a comic like On the Books that takes as its topic the dreariness of being a service worker, even for an anti-corporate, independent company like Strand Books. It’s just too bad that too often the tone of this book is a weary shrug of the shoulders instead of an indignant pointing of the finger.


[*] Update: After this was published, a representative of Microcosm Publishing responded via email, saying that subsequent printings will clarify any confusing portions of the book, and that Google’s predictive search results about the company are unfortunate holdovers from early problems that the staff of Microcosm has since put behind them.