Retail tales of festive frenzy

Considering a Christmas season spent working at a busy commercial bookshop, Max Stein looks at the pressures of the holiday season on retail workers – and asks what kind of action it would take for booksellers to win decent pay and conditions.

Bookshop interior. Keywords: bookshops trade union organising activism living wage
Image: Phil Hearing / Unsplash

Even at the best of times, Christmas is a class issue. While managers and better-off workers enjoy an extended ‘holiday season’, a large minority of the workforce is sweated extra hard to facilitate this leisure time. Only one day of December, Christmas Day itself, is a strictly observed bank holiday (even then, of course, ‘essential workers’, like health workers, carers and repair workers, keep going); many shops start trading again on Boxing Day despite its status as a bank holiday, and every other day of the month is fully up for grabs for employers in retail and hospitality to offer maximum service to the customer through maximum exploitation of their own workers.

Nowhere is this more true than in bookshops, which are massively dependent on Christmas sales. The workload of each individual bookseller (the standard job title for bookshop workers) swells dramatically in the final weeks of the year, despite the practice of hiring of a swathe of temporary workers in late October or early November. A year or two ago I was one of these temps, taken on at a small outlet (perhaps a dozen or fifteen employees in all) of a large commercial bookshop.

The end-of-year rush intensifies the pre-existing dynamics of exploitation in a sector that shares many of the typical characteristics of retail work in general. Wages are low – the starting wage of a Waterstones bookseller is around £8.20, well below the real living wage. Many booksellers do a nine-hour workday: eight paid hours, dissected by a compulsory unpaid lunch hour that helps management to more conveniently arrange the shift patterns. For full-time workers, the two days off out of every seven are distributed haphazardly throughout the week; to have two consecutive days off is a rare luxury, and for these to fall on a weekend is almost unheard-of. This puts a heavy shackle on social and family life throughout the year, and never more so than in the holiday season.

Nonetheless, several powerful factors tend to prevent bookshop workers from fully identifying with the class position that they share with other low-waged retail staff. Many booksellers are ‘Bibliophiles’ who feel fortunate to be stacking books rather than furniture or tinned foods. Management skilfully instrumentalise this goodwill, and spin a compelling yarn in which commercial bookshops appear as plucky underdogs, resisting the pressure of Amazon and other online retailers, in what my own manager unironically described as a ‘David and Goliath’ struggle

In reality, the ‘David’ in question is a morass of intertwined large companies: Foyles (the UK’s third-largest bookshop chain) was bought in 2018 by Waterstones (its largest); Waterstones, in turn, is managed by James Daunt, who is also the founder of the London-based Daunt Books chain and the CEO of Barnes and Noble, the United States’ largest bookselling company. All of these firms are ultimately owned by vulture-capitalist fund Elliott Advisors, which extracts millions from Waterstones annually via an off-shore shell company. Meanwhile, the owner of Blackwell’s, the UK’s other large bookshop chain, was a key donor to Ukip while it was led by Nigel Farage, and later on became a leading financier of Arron Banks’s hard-right campaign group, Leave.eu.

That’s not to say that the psychological compensations of the job can be entirely attributed to management propaganda, or to workers’ own cultural vanity. Bookshops are certainly (usually) more sedate places to work than supermarkets, and the work is less physically intensive. Both managers and customers are often polite and respectful – although of course this can never be taken for granted, especially when many customers expect booksellers to be literary encyclopaedia on legs. (A Black colleague recounted how a white customer demanded to physically take over her staff computer desk, in order to ‘prove’ that she was using the database incorrectly.)

The Christmas season produces circumstances in which interpersonal interaction becomes more stressful, with colossal queues of harried customers looking to quickly dispense with their shopping, and often hoping to have a full basket of purchases all but chosen for them. A slip of the hand that puts a till out of action for 30 seconds can result in half a dozen customers tutting angrily and tapping their heels. Management often play both sides of things – simpering to aggressive customers on the shop floor, and then disparaging them (in a kind of ‘us against them’ seasonal pantomime for the benefit of workers) in the staff room, or once the doors are safely shut for the day.

Over the two months or so I spent in the shop, my co-workers became noticeably more open to chatting about grievances during breaks. As well as the building pressure on the shopfloor, this clearly owed something to the realisation that our own Christmas season was going to be crammed into a narrow one- or two-day window. This fact became final when the shifts for late December were published, showing that most of us would work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.

It wasn’t only my colleagues’ awareness of exploitation that was on the increase: the actual rate of exploitation really was increasing. While wages stayed the same, daily sales grew four- or five-fold. In the weeks before Christmas, the shop (with five or six tills) was turning over 50 or 60 thousand pounds per day. We knew exactly how much the shop was making, as it fell to us count the tills after closing time. You don’t leave until the count has been finished and has been shown to match exactly with the tills’ own computations – something that can easily take 45 minutes at this time of year, although wages stop being paid at a quarter-hour past closing time. It’s quite something to personally process ten grand’s worth of payments, work unpaid overtime to count it, then go home with £65 in pay.

This year, booksellers will be running the same seasonal gauntlet while also contending with the deadly resurgence of Covid-19. Both in March and at the outset of the second lockdown in November, James Daunt has hit the airwaves with sanctimonious pleas to class bookshops as ‘essential’ businesses, thus allowing them to keep their doors open despite employees’ well-grounded fears of contracting Covid. Less than a month earlier, Daunt had defended Waterstones’ choice to not pay workers a living wage, despite acknowledging it would be ‘relatively easy’ for the firm to do so. At the time of writing, with Tier 4 restrictions in place in London, Waterstones and Foyles shops in the city are still open for the collection of items ordered online, meaning that booksellers are still interacting with strangers all day in an indoor space.

Now outside the industry, it’s hard for me to make definite statements on the prospects for organisation among booksellers. The state of organised trade unionism in the sector is poor, though last year there was a well-publicised staff petition at Waterstones demanding a living wage. It’s clear that the Christmas season, without which no UK bookshop would be financially viable, is management’s financial Achilles’ heel. In the peak weeks of December, any kind of action from workers – even action short of a strike, like a ‘work to rule’ slowdown (where employees refuse to work any harder or any longer than the legal minimum set out in their contract) would be an emergency for management.

For something like this to be successful in November or December, groundwork would need to be laid well in advance, with a rebuilding of shopfloor organisation over time. Trade unionists and socialists working in the sector on a longer-term basis need to take this moment to highlight to their colleagues the gross hypocrisy and cynicism of senior management figures who exhort employees into unsafe workplaces while sitting snugly in their home offices. Connections of solidarity could also be forged with the increasingly loud groups of organised workers at Amazon and online retailers.

Successful organising will need to involve breaking colleagues away from the notion that working in a bookshop is its own remuneration. But the sense of pride and attachment that many booksellers feel in their work is also something that activists can work with, rather than against. It’s the working conditions that are a problem, not the work itself. Many booksellers currently accept low pay and precarity as the price of having a job they enjoy. It’s not a price they should have to pay.

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