Updated, 9/3, 10:55 a.m.
Some faculty members are questioning the employee wages offered by Book Culture, drawing out tensions between professors and the local bookstore after union disputes this summer.
Five employees were fired after voting to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in July. After a number of demonstrations and calls from Columbia faculty members to boycott the store, four managers were eventually rehired and the fifth agreed to accept a severance package.
“I know that things are hard for independent bookstores. I appreciate the extraordinary service Book Culture has been rendering us all,” English professor Bruce Robbins said. “But no, that’s not an adequate excuse for crude union-busting tactics.”
During the dispute, some faculty members, including history professor Mae Ngai, planned to boycott the store and withhold course book offers until the workers were rehired. The unionization dispute was ultimately resolved before the boycott took place.
Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin said that Columbia professors and students play an important role in the store’s business.
“This store follows an academic-bookstore model. Professors choose to give us a list of course books,” Doeblin said. “Without that, not nearly as many students would come here.”
But now that the labor dispute has been resolved, a group of professors say they are still concerned that employee wages are too low. According to Doeblin, the starting salary for Book Culture workers is $10 per hour, only slightly above minimum wage.
Sociology professor Peter Bearman proposed to the Columbia University Faculty Action Committee that they consider working with Doeblin to raise wages by reducing the faculty discount of 25 percent to 15 percent and dedicating the funds raised from the reduced discount directly to wages.
"The faculty discount is quite high,” Robbins said. “I would certainly be open to giving it up if that meant workers getting higher wages."
Still, Doeblin said that he didn’t believe this system would work because professors do not account for enough of the store’s sales for the discount reduction to make a large impact.
Some faculty members are also questioning the decision to open a branch of the bookstore on 82nd Street and Columbus Avenue. According to Doeblin, the new store is set to open by the end of the year.
“They should not expand unless they can be sure to pay their workers decent wages,” Ngai said.
Doeblin said, however, that the opening of the new store is not a reflection on the success of the 112th Street location.
“We’re not expanding with profits from this store,” Doeblin said. “This store is struggling. We’re barely alive and its future is uncertain.”
Doeblin said that he and his co-owner, Annie Hedrick, emptied their retirement savings to open the third location and that they were planning a fundraising campaign in both the current and new communities to help with extra costs.
Doeblin said he would like to raise wages but noted that surviving as an academic bookstore made finances uncertain.
“Today, students have access to so many resources online,” Doeblin said.
Since the new Upper West Side store will not have ties to Columbia, Doeblin said it will offer a different type of service than those provided by the 112th Street location.
“We’re bringing a different neighborhood a different kind of bookstore,” Doeblin said.
Despite their complaints, many professors still said that they consider Book Culture an important part of the Columbia community.
“I did decide to support them more,” Ngai said. “To buy there more and from Amazon less.”
“I am a big supporter of the store. We need a real bookstore in our neighborhood,” Bearman said.