After 'Rude Awakening' in Last Year, Bookstore Workers Across U.S. Begin to Unionize

Bookstore workers across the United States are beginning to unionize in an unprecedented move, the Associated Press reported.

Unionization across many industries has increased dramatically since 2020. However, doing so in the publishing industry is seen as a rarity. According to AP, bookselling is often synonymous with liberal politics and valuing knowledge over money. In fact, the first union contract for the bookstore industry is set for the anti-war establishment Moe's Books in Berkeley, California.

"After lots of ups and downs, and major disagreements, the parties have come together," Moe's Books buyer Owen Hill told AP. "We're zeroing in on a contract, and both sides are negotiating in good faith. I expect that we will be voting on a new contract just after Thanksgiving [fingers crossed]. I think management realized that both sides are committed to keeping the store open—we're such an important part of the community."

He also talked about why the bookstore industry is steadily beginning to unionize after years of quiet, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has done a lot of damage to the industry.

"I think COVID-19 was a rude awakening for bookstore workers, and really anyone who works with the public," Hill said. "We were given no say regarding safe working conditions, even though we were risking our health by showing up for work. We had to organize in order to be a part of the conversation around worker safety."

It is not just Moe's Books seeing workers begin to form unions. New York City's Printed Matter and McNally Jackson stores, Half Price Books stores in Minnesota, San Francisco's Green Apple Books, Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company, and California's Bookshop Santa Cruz are other bookstores that have either created their own unions or are attempting to make one.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Half Price Books
Bookstore workers across the United States are beginning to unionize in an unprecedented move. Above, Dan Loftus carries books at Half Price Books in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, on May 11, 2020. Half Price Books was co-founded in 1972 by Ken Gjemre, a former corporate employee who in middle age wanted to make a living more in line with his ideals as an environmentalist and anti-war protester. AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File

Britta Larson, a shift leader at Half Price Books in Roseville, Minnesota, has been with the store for nearly 12 years but only recently thought about whether she wanted to join a union.

"With the pandemic going on, we all were just weary of the constant dismissals we got when we raised concerns about staffing and workload to upper management," said Larson, noting that the staff had been reduced when the store shut down for a time and was "stretched extremely thin" once it opened again.

"Before the pandemic, I'd say we would have kind of just thought 'Things aren't great' because it was all we had ever known. The pandemic forced us to do some things differently and we learned from that."

Larson told AP that she and fellow Half Price staffers would rather unionize than quit because of their "enjoyment of books and love of our jobs as booksellers."

But when workers organize, even the most progressive-minded owners might object.

Moe's Books was co-founded in 1959 by the cigar-smoking Moe Moskowitz, a longtime activist and agitator known in part for letting his store serve as a refuge for anti-war protesters in the 1960s. Moe's is now run by his daughter, Doris Moskowitz, who has spoken of the store's egalitarian atmosphere and tradition of valuing dissent and social consciousness.

But when the staff announced in March that it was affiliating with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, Moskowitz acknowledged mixed feelings, telling the digital news site Berkeleyside that the "decision to unionize, which I deeply respect from a political perspective, has left me very sad and confused." In September, workers picketed the store and alleged unfair labor practices (denied by Moskowitz), though Hill says the situation has since improved.

In a recent email to AP, Moskowitz wrote: "Booksellers all over the country are participating in an important conversation. We are proud to be part of that, and we are especially proud of the progress made toward our first labor contract."

Half Price Books also has its roots in the anti-establishment. It was co-founded in 1972 by Ken Gjemre, a former executive at the Zale Corporation who in middle age wanted to make a living more in line with his ideals as a pacifist, environmentalist and civil libertarian. A 2003 article in PR Week, published a year after Gjemre's death, described Half Price as "forgiving and generous to its unconventional workforce, which is peppered with aging hippies and liberal-arts majors."

Half Price has grown from a former laundromat in Dallas to more than 100 locations around the country. In response to a request for comment on the current labor action in Minnesota, Half Price Books Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Kathy Doyle Thomas said in a statement: "Half Price Books strives to provide competitive benefits and good working conditions for all 1,900 employees across the country. We understand there is a movement to organize workers, and we respect the right of employees to vote. We are committed to following all procedures required by law."

The company sent a different message to employees. In a statement posted for a time in some of the Minnesota stores, workers were told that Half Price would oppose unionization "with every legal means available to us." Forming a union, the company added, was "a very serious decision, one that could affect your working future, and the future of those that depend on you. We believe that, once you get all the facts about the union, you will decide that our future will be better without a union."

Some owners say they are at peace with unions despite tensions. When staff at the McNally Jackson stores in New York City organized in 2019, owner Sarah McNally acknowledged that the action was initially a shock that "offended" her "indie spirit." But she now says the union has brought clarity and structure to everything from salaries to job descriptions, and overall made management of the store more efficient.

At Green Apple Books in San Francisco, co-owner Pete Mulvihill had just joined the staff when workers joined the local UFCW around 30 years ago, and he remembers a "brutal" process that including picketing, layoffs and "an astounding amount of money spent on legal bills." He says tempers still rise when contracts are negotiated every three years, but he believes that staff and management are largely united as "like-minded book lovers."

"It's helpful to have clear, written policies on things like scheduling, health insurance and paid time off," he says. "It also sets realistic expectations for incoming staff around what the store can offer in compensation. And San Francisco is historically a labor town, so I think customers feel good knowing that our employees are backed by a union."

City Lights Bookstore
Bookstore workers across the United States are beginning to unionize in an unprecedented move. Above, shelves filled with books at City Lights Bookstore, an independent bookstore founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, the birthplace of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The landmark bookstore was a hangout of Beat Generation writers and artists, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It continues to be a popular bookstore, specializing in publications of interest to left-leaning readers. Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images