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Chances are, if you’re a literate liberal who lives in New York, you have bought (and sold) books at the Strand. As fears mount about Amazon’s undue influence on the publishing industry and as the number of independent bookstores — particularly those selling used and rare books — in the city dwindles, the Strand seems to grow in stature, becoming a beacon, a last hope, a symbol of the precious old values of a changing city.
But the store is not all it seems. Those old values are a myth, or maybe just a memory. Many of us were shocked to learn last fall that the owners of the Strand, our beloved independent bookseller, had been using the store’s sprinkler system to disperse homeless people. And as a new book published this month reveals, the owners of the Strand have been engaged in a long struggle to bust their workers’ union.
On the Books, written and drawn by Greg Farrell and released by Microcosm Publishing, is a firsthand comics account of contract negotiations at the Strand in 2012 — or, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore.” Farrell is not a journalist, although he did considerable reporting and research for the project; he has been a unionized worker at the Strand for over seven years now. The book consists of a series of strips and pamphlets he created and distributed during those 2012 negotiations, many of them with an activist bent. As such, On the Books is not an impartial, or even an entirely cohesive, account of what transpired between Strand management and workers and the union two years ago. But it is a revealing and deeply disheartening one.
According to Farrell at the outset of the book, the Strand employs 152 workers who are part of United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 2179, making the bookstore the Local’s largest constituency. The unionized workers’ contract comes up for renewal every three years, and in both 2008 and 2011, Strand owners Fred Bass and his daughter, Nancy Bass-Wyden, proposed terms that Farrell characterizes as “long-term disadvantages to the workers,” including decreased personal days and paid holidays, and most drastically, in 2011, “a two-tier structure under which employees hired after the effective date of this contract would receive different, less substantial benefits.” This new system, which would obviously pit workers against each other and weaken the union, became the biggest point of contention as negotiations dragged on into 2012. On April 5 of that year, the Strand’s union workers voted against the new contract, setting off the two-month struggle chronicled in the book.
Two months may not sound like a long time, but it’s enough to contain plenty of action: protests by workers and outside supporters, a sick-out, countless meetings and negotiations and votes. And importantly, during those two months, “we workers go without definite benefits, while strife and tension pervade the workplace,” Farrell writes.
He covers all of these goings-on diligently and with an impressive lack of bitterness, narrating the ins and outs of dealing with both the store and union management, who often seem equally useless. Perhaps because Farrell has little direct contact with the former (he is not on the negotiating committee), the latter come off as especially infuriating, as in one absurd episode in which Farrell designs and prints a set of flyers to distribute, and the union responds by “express[ing] their disapproval and suppl[ying] a list of changes and demands,” including “the inclusion of two separate union logos.”
Throughout this narrative, Farrell intersperses pertinent histories — of the Strand, of the UAW, of himself — and his own musings. His emotional investment in the story, willingness to question his own position, and patient explanations of everything from the process of attempting to organize an action to “the Strand logo cottage industry” make him an excellent narrator.
Where On the Books falters is in its artwork. The single-color format (blue) works fine, and Farrell is a talented draftsman with a simple style and a heavy line. But the images often fail to match the words in a logical or inspiring way; for instance, two panels explaining Farrell’s frustrations with the union are accompanied by drawings of 50 Cent and George Lucas spouting tangentially related text. Too many panels face this problem: compelling, or at least interesting, captions on top with pictures that do little to illuminate or elucidate the story (and that often need extra explanations) underneath. At times it feels like there just may not be enough of a visual story here, and at others like Farrell hasn’t quite worked out the way his comics work yet, with the right match of text and image that bolsters both.
This problem comes to the fore in the interstitials, some of the best and most confounding parts of the book. Standalone talking-head strips that are set off in a blue border, the interstitials feature interviews with Strand workers past and present on the situation at the store. They’re full of candid conversation and insights — e.g. “How can an institution that professes to champion free speech and individuality treat its employees as if they are numbers at the bottom of a calculation?” — that don’t come from Farrell himself, and so are vital to the wholeness of the book. But Farrell’s decisions in illustrating them are sort of unfathomable: why is one speaker a taco, another a person about to dive into a pool, another an apparent costumed crusader stuck in a tree? A clear connection between the visual characterizations of these people and their comments would make a world of difference.
In mid June, after the threat of a strike from the union, the Strand owners put forth “a slightly improved offer.” Farrell felt “optimistic” that the workers would vote to reject the proposal, but on June 14, they accepted it. The new contract included the provision for two tiers of workers, and according to Farrell, in the year that followed, the store initiated a personnel turnover, “focus[ed] on pushing out older, more highly paid, unionized workers … and steadily replacing them with recent college graduates.” Throughout negotiations the Basses (and union leaders) had continually claimed that the need for contract changes sprung from a changing — read: declining — book business, but on December 26, 2013, the store reported the best sales day in its 86-year history. (Farrell also points out that the Basses own the Strand’s building, so they’re not subject to the merciless whims of New York City real estate.)
Nearly a year after that, Farrell is still working at the Strand. He tells me over email that he hasn’t felt any repercussions from management over the book, and in fact, the store sells it. And now, as I write, Strand workers are once again beginning to negotiate with management over the terms of their contract. Just last week, they voted “overwhelmingly,” says Farrell, to reject the first offer. Will they keep fighting this time? Will management concede to the union? “In the story of the Strand Bookstore, when the legacy of Benjamin Bass and his progeny is rightly celebrated, what will be said of the workers?” Farrell asks in the book. Only time will tell.