Booksellers of the world, unite: A conversation with two members of Elliott Bay Book Company's new Book Workers Union

Last Friday morning, when the Seattle area was just beginning to realize the impact that the coronavirus would have on all our lives, the workers of Elliott Bay Book Company announced that they had formed a union, and that Elliott Bay's store management immediately agreed to recognize the newly formed Book Workers Union. (Full disclosure: I worked at Elliott Bay from 2000 to 2008, both as a bookseller and as a manager.) It was a watershed moment in the history of the bookstore, in the middle of a full-blown economic crisis that is still unfolding now. I talked with Sam Karpp and Jacob Schear, two members of the union, on Monday. Schear and Karpp both helped organize the union, but they note that since the organization is so new, there is no internal structure and so they hold no special titles or unique roles within the union.

So first of all, congratulations! I have to aJS, first, about the day you announced the union. It was the day that the nation was really coming to terms with the idea that coronavirus would be breaking down normal life on almost every level. I can think of one or, at most, two other days in my lifetime, the first being 9/11 and the second being, maaaaaaybe, the first day of the financial collapse in 2008, that would be a worse news day to announce something like this. In terms of earned media, it was pretty much the worst day to get attention. So can I aJS you for a little bit of information about the timeline, and whether you considered world events when you were announcing the union?

SAM KARPP: It was pretty much all we talked about for the weeks leading up to [the announcement] as we were trying to get everything else ready. We had just about every conversation possible, from whether it was the right time to move forward to, like you said, what the press would be like given the situation.

Ultimately, we decided that given the precariousness of the situation, it was actually more important than ever that we move forward despite the decreased press and everyone else's attention being on other things at the moment. Both because the situation has really made visible things that are always present but not always as visible, like the precariousness of small business and the people who work in small business, but also I think we felt like everyone needed something positive to latch onto in this moment and we thought we could maybe be a part of that.

JACOB SCHEAR: We're very happy and confident with our decision to have gone public when we did. We're entering into a moment...I don't know if you have heard this, but the store has just closed [the physical store but stayed open for phone and internet orders] through [March] 31st.

I saw that announcement just before I called you.

JS: We're entering into this moment of precarity, both for ourselves and the store, and we feel that being mobilized and organized as workers we'll be best able to ensure that the bookstore makes it through whatever comes next. We have so many ideas for how to keep the store running through this. Our coworkers have so many great ideas, and we really think that we can put those to work because we have a collective voice at work.

When I worked at Elliot Bay — I don't know if this is still true or not, so you'll have to fact-check me — Peter [Aaron, Elliott Bay's owner] did annual or twice yearly staff meetings where he went through the finances on a pretty granular level. It was certainly more detailed financial information about the running of the company than in literally any other job that I've ever had. He talked about the money that was coming in and the money that was going out and where it was going and all that. Is that something that's still going on or is that something that you were hoping to have more of a hand in?

SK: He does still do, usually twice a year, the financial rundown of the store.

One of the impressions that I always got from those meetings was that there wasn't a whole lot of extra money floating around. There's the old cliche about how nobody got into the book business to get rich. What kind of benefits do you think that the union can give to its booksellers, knowing that the pool of profits is relatively small, if it's there at all?

SK: I think given the extenuating circumstances of our moment, things like wage increases are going to take a little bit more of a back seat, at least immediately. We want to push for things like making sure that employees are taken care of throughout the COVID-19 emergency: Things like having a sick bank, increasing sick hours that are available for employees. We have already seen direct action taken by the store for cleaning protocols, things of that nature. Those are the emergency negotiations with management that we're pushing for immediately.

JS: I'd like to preface this by saying that Jacob and I have both been involved in the organizing pretty centrally up to this point, and we understand our role as having been to basically get us to this point — to win the union. At this point it's going to be time for all of our coworkers to step forward and articulate what it is exactly that they're looking for, which we have some ideas about.

I think one thing I'd suggest is that there are a lot of things that have to do with the conditions of our labor that has to do with the extent to which, or the channels through which, our incredibly talented and passionate coworkers are able to express their voice in the store. And ultimately what that means is that people want the freedom and creativity to do what they love, which is sell books. We do think that there is a possibility for gains in terms of things like wages and benefits. But for a lot of people, the main point was that freedom to determine the conditions of their work and to be able to express themselves at work.

SK: I think of the employees having agency and a voice in the workplace as ultimately truly benefiting Elliott Bay by being able to retain employees who love what they do, love being at the bookstore, and making it into a viable longterm job for people.

You did not know that management would necessarily recognize the union when you were getting ready to announce it, is that right?

SK: No.

Were you surprised they did?

SK: Yeah, we were extremely surprised, but extremely pleasantly surprised. We came forward with very, very strong support both within staff — just percentage-wise — and also with strong community support as soon as we were public on Thursday. So I think that those things contributed. I also think that it's worth applauding management and Peter Aaron, the owner of the store, for not taking the extremely anti-democratic steps that they could have taken to try to prevent us from forming our union — [steps] that they are legally allowed to take, given the state of labor law.

JS: And I think that our message has always been one of positivity — of wanting to ensure the long-term success and longevity of Elliott Bay. And I know that's something that they've made clear that they really appreciate. I think we do have a lot to gain by working together.

SK: Given that we all share common interests, which is maintaining Elliott Bay and continue making it even better, I think it was really wise on their part to be able to see that common interest.

Did you talk with other bookstores with collective arrangements? Like, I know that Powell's has unionized, and Left Bank Books in the Pike Place Market has been worker-owned for decades, since it was first formed. Did you talk to either of those two, or any others?

JS: We didn't really talk with anyone directly. We definitely did research and looked at other places. We have someone who in fact did work at Powell's who was part of our organizing committee who shared her experience working in a unionized bookstore, but we didn't have a whole lot of direct communication with other unionized booksellers.

SK: But we did look to other bookstores that had unionized, and the kinds of things that they were doing.

Early on we spent a lot of time with a wonderful Masters in History down in Portland, who wrote their thesis on the Powell's unionization drive. So we learned a lot from studying that. Totally fascinating read.

Can you talk through just a little bit — somebody else will write the master's thesis I'm sure — but just an overview of what it was like to organize the store?

SK: So it's a long way to think back, but I guess the main answer is that we took a lot of time to make sure that we were thinking about how we're going to reach out to people, spending a lot of time talking to them, hearing their concerns. We already have, and we're blessed to have, really strong social connections. A lot of our coworkers are our friends, which makes it a lot easier to talk about this stuff. Over the course of many, many months, we were able to get to a point where we had a little over 80 percent support.

JS: I would just say, from the get-go, everyone who was involved was just very, very committed, and consistent. So we had a weekly meeting that we just rigidly stuck to, and plans for each week that were stuck to. And I think there was just a lot of follow-through from everyone. Everyone was deeply committed to it from the start.

Do you know what it's going to look like now? Will you be involved in weekly meetings with management? Are you in the war room and doing crisis management as this pandemic goes on?

JS: One of the things that we were able to get as a result of our formation and announcement on Friday was that management agreed to sit down with us immediately to negotiate about what we were going to do with the COVID-19 situation.

I don't want to go too far into the details of the kinds of things we were negotiating about, but basically we were concerned with how people were going to cope in the event of having to close or reduce hours. But also a substantial portion of what we wanted was basically the creation of channels to reach out to staff and let them produce ideas that would help us get through this. We've had a wealth of creative ideas come in from our coworkers that we will be expressing to management as soon as possible — possibly later today.

Long term, we will sit down and negotiate for a contract, which will probably involve more regular meetings and such. But at the moment it's a crisis and all our focus is on this.

Was there anything else that you wanted to say to our readers?

JS: I would say the most important thing that you can do, both for the union and for the bookstore, is to please order a book online during this time. We're trying to find creative ways to reach out to our customers and working on a number of different ways to engage with our community. But we'd appreciate whatever you can do right now, whether that's ordering a book online or doing a pre-order, or re-tweeting us, or buying a gift card. I think people are looking for a community during this time and we're going to do whatever we can to try to make that happen for people.

SK: I think that we're going to show through this process that workers and small businesses can both benefit from workers organizing.

I realize it's a difficult time, but I think that we all want to encourage anyone who's thinking about this kind of stuff to talk to your coworkers — even if it's not forming a union, you have the right to talk about this kind of stuff and work together to make the world a better place.