On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore

On the Books cover

Now that I’m living in Madison, Wisconsin, with its progressive history and more recent union-busting legislation (and the subsequent protests, which included a failed election to recall Governor Scott Walker, legislators fleeing the state to avoid a vote, and thousands of people occupying the State Capitol), I’m more aware of labor disputes and the complicated history of worker/management relations. So I was fascinated to discover On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore from Microcosm Publishing. It retells, as the back cover has it, “the 2012 labor struggle at NYC’s legendary Strand Bookstore”.

At the time of this telling, the Strand had 152 unionized workers and about 30 non-union managers. Contract renewal negotiations began in September 2011, until the union rejected the business’s “final offer” in April 2012. Although reportedly doing well, the store’s justification was increased competition and a poor economy. That led to a May Day strike.

Author Greg Farrell worked at the store during this time, but he doesn’t just rely on his own impressions. The opinions of co-workers — drawn to disguise them, whether as a dolphin, dog, masked wrestler, or taco — are frequently presented between chapters, providing a fuller portrait of the diversity of approaches.

On the Books cover

There’s a brief history of unionization early on, focused on this particular organization, but the union isn’t presented as an unvarnished good guy. There’s a section on many things they’d done wrong. I found the discussion of the problems of a two-tier system particularly informative, where older employees get to keep more benefits but new hires are brought in with a worse deal.

The assistance of outside supporters is also shown as a mixed bag, without enough coordination at times. This is my favorite kind of visual reporting, where the author clearly has a point of view, but he’s trying to cover all sides as well. There’s also an interesting short section on the collectibles business and how it’s changed over the years as physical objects became less interesting and online retail grew. I also liked that Farrell takes several pages to explore his concerns about putting out these comics and how they might affect his job and his relationships with his co-workers.

Artistically, the presentation is basic and straightforward. Most pages are a six-panel grid, and most panels have an image with narration text running in the top third. That makes it easy to read and understandable to those who may not be as familiar with the comic format. However, instead of relying primarily on the text, Farrell does creative things with the images, often exaggerating metaphors to put across his ideas more memorably. For instance, as he illustrates his time working at the store, a series of figures shows rattier-looking clothes and more aches and pains (shown by tiny stars and body language). This is some subtly talented cartooning.

It’s a very timely story, given how many young people are currently underemployed in our economy, and these struggles are the kind every intelligent person should be aware of. I was reminded of how important good bookstores are, and that the quality of the store is based on the knowledge of the people that work there.


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