The most glaring challenge to access to books today stems from attacks on school and public libraries by right-wing politicians and activists. In Texas, lawmakers are trying to regulate how books are sold to schools. Libraries frequently receive bomb threats, including in a recent spate in the Chicago area. These are brazen and dangerous attacks on our democracy as well as fundamental challenges to bookstores—but they’re not the only challenge that books and booksellers face.
Almost every bookseller has heard some version of “$18 for a paperback! Books are so expensive!” Given the thousands of hours of skilled labor a book requires, $18 really should be considered cheap. But $18 is still too much for many people. Once they’ve paid their rent, health insurance premiums, student loans, car loans, phone bills, and other utility bills, and fed and clothed their families, there isn’t enough left to buy the books they want. Readers who should be booksellers’ customers aren’t.
Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. The minimum wage in 1968, when adjusted for inflation, would have been worth $12 per hour today. According to data from the Federal Reserve and Realtime Inequality, if the federal minimum wage were to have grown with increases in productivity since 1968, it would’ve been $21.50 in 2020. Since 1980, the top 1% has seen its income grow 235.3%, while the bottom 50% has only seen an increase of 29.8%. We talk about the erosion of the American middle class in many other contexts, but I rarely see it discussed in terms of the ways in which it impacts small businesses in a consumer-spending-driven economy.
Those same expenses that eat into customers’ discretionary spending strain bookstore owners, too. We pay for health insurance for our employees, dramatically reducing our potential wages. We get squeezed on rent; too often we are forced to move from successful locations because landlords want more money. These economic conditions aren’t natural phenomena. Low wages and exorbitant healthcare, housing, and education costs are the result of policy decisions made to support some populations at the expense of others. And though none of those policies target bookstores, they still hit us.
My book, The Art of Libromancy, focuses on the changes booksellers can make to stores that will impact the publishing industry and the wider world. But booksellers also need to look at the challenges facing all small businesses and all Americans, and consider techniques for change that may have made us uncomfortable in the past. The American Booksellers Association has used litigation in the past, notably when it sued publishers and Barnes & Noble over unfair discounts; the shop local movement seeks to change both the culture of individual communities and influence municipal, state, and federal policy; and the ABA and many booksellers engage in antitrust and anti-censorship advocacy. These political actions have a direct focus on bookstores. But, taking a larger view, can we really argue that the collapse of the American middle class only indirectly affects our industry?
That challenges to book access tend to come from certain ideologies does not make us ideologues when we confront them. Nor does the fact that these ideologies are linked to the contemporary Republican Party make us partisans when we oppose them. The fact that Republican and conservative groups are also politicizing history education, restricting gender expression, attacking bodily autonomy, and blocking sensible gun control measures—that perhaps could have, for instance, saved the life of the California shopkeeper who was shot to death in August for displaying a pride flag at her store—prompts larger questions: Are challenges to bookstores separate from other challenges to democracy, equality, and freedom? Or are they all symptomatic of an ideology that views people as nothing more than tools to produce wealth and power for a select few?
That confronting these specific challenges overlaps with other political conflicts over social and economic justice shouldn’t make us fear accusations of partisanship. Rather we should look at is as an opportunity for solidarity and community with those who have been fighting these battles for decades.
Too many people in this country can’t afford the goods and services—and books—they want because of policies that transfer wealth from the working class to the rich and powerful. As much as booksellers may want to remain nonpartisan, we have to recognize that many of the challenges our stores face are political and, at least today, partisan. I believe if bookstore owners focus on community building and cultivating long-term booksellers, we can run profitable bookstores that pay livable wages—even if we are hamstrung by these challenges. But imagine if we weren’t.
Josh Cook is a bookseller, marketing director, and co-owner of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., where he has worked since 2004.