As the owner of a post-Barnes & Noble, post-Amazon independent bookstore, Chris Doeblin once had his customers’ sympathies by default. His shop, Book Culture, located in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood, is known mostly as a source of textbooks and leisure reading alike for students at nearby Columbia University — the kind of store one makes a point of patronizing because its ownership, unlike a massive corporation’s, presumably cares about things other than the business’s bottom line: books, customers, and the workers who connect them. But the fallout from Book Culture’s vote to unionize at the end of June has called those assumptions into question, revealing a history of worker mistreatment and prejudice where many least expected to find it.
The dust has mostly settled around the initial labor dispute that brought Book Culture into the limelight at the end of June. Gothamist broke the story, later covered by the New York Times, that Doeblin had fired five of his workers in the aftermath of a vote to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, provoking a one-day strike on July 2 and a significant backlash from customers. In an email sent to members on July 3, Doeblin announced, “We have re-hired all four store managers… There is no longer a labor dispute.”
Employees say the firings weren’t the first instance of Doeblin mistreating them, however. According to half a dozen current and former Book Culture workers, that reputation has obscured an environment that’s hostile and even discriminatory. Under Doeblin, employees have been poorly paid and given unclear job titles, aspects of the workplace that have been broadly publicized in the wake of the union vote. The decision to unionize, however, was also prompted by less tangible factors that contributed to workers’ desire for institutionalized protection.
When Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone met Doeblin in July 2013, she was flattered to receive a job offer on the spot. Assuming she’d gotten the position thanks to her previous work as a bookseller in Chicago, she let Doeblin’s subsequent remark slide: “He said to me, ‘I want you to think really hard about whether you want to take this job… You’re attractive and you’re intelligent, so I’m sure you’ll get lots of job offers,'” Loeffler-Gladstone, who left the store in May, says. “That set the tone for the rest of our relationship.” (Doeblin declined to comment on any of the incidents described in this piece.)
The comment was subtle, but other female employees also described a “general feeling” of sexism in Doeblin’s management style. They say that women were often tasked with cleaning up the store after events; ordering cards, clothing, and other merchandise Book Culture stocks apart from books; and ringing up customers. (One current employee, who asked not to be identified, reports that Doeblin expressed a preference for “nice, female faces on the register.”) Loeffler-Gladstone also described “weird, off-the-wall comments,” such as telling her that some sandwiches she’d made for an in-store event were too big to fit in female attendees’ mouths.
Doeblin’s disconcerting behavior wasn’t limited to Book Culture’s female workers. Kerry Henderson, who worked at the store for two and a half years before her temporary dismissal, recounted a conversation in which she says Doeblin attempted to dissuade her from union involvement. “He ended the conversation by saying, ‘You know, I’m not that bad of a guy, I just hired two new retards to work in the store,'” Henderson says, explaining that Doeblin was referring to a pair of mentally disabled workers placed at Book Culture by a third-party work experience program.
Henderson says she also witnessed Doeblin repeatedly making comments to a Hispanic employee about both her weight and her race. Doeblin allegedly prohibited the same employee from using the store’s elevator, requiring her to use the stairs; as she was eating lunch, he asked her, “Aren’t you on a diet?” Doeblin also mocked her accent: “He would walk down to the floor and talk to her in front of customers with a Spanish accent on,” Henderson says.
Though none of the above incidents escalated beyond verbal commentary, workers say Doeblin’s behavior would occasionally cross into more threatening territory. With one exception, every current and former Book Culture employee interviewed for this story independently described Doeblin as “intimidating.” One former employee described Doeblin’s habit of “coming up behind his women employees and towering over them [Doeblin is over six feet tall], standing very close, while telling them why he dislikes how they’re doing their jobs.”
The same former employee recounted an incident in the summer of 2013 in which Doeblin expressed his dissatisfaction with two female booksellers by saying he would “have to thrash these girls into shape.” Later, one of the employees Doeblin was referring to reports seeing him chase an alleged shoplifter from the store and “beat” the suspect before the police arrived. The violence of the incident drove the employee to tears; Doeblin’s reaction, she recalls, was “dismissive.”
Combined with $9/hour starting wages and a lack of distinct job titles, employees say Doeblin’s behavior led them to unionize. In the weeks leading up to the vote, however, Doeblin promoted about a third of the store’s workforce to “manager,” a title that employees say did not come with substantive new responsibilities or the authority to hire and fire workers. Doeblin nonetheless argued that “managers,” now half the store’s workforce — nine employees, compared to three at the same time last year — were barred from joining the union, and cited four workers’ “supervisor” status as grounds for dismissal rather than waiting for the National Labor Relations Board to rule on his challenge.
Though it’s difficult to establish whether Doeblin promoted the workers in order to affect the union vote, Henderson described the timing of the promotions as “convenient”; Casey McNamara, who acted as an election observer on behalf of the RWDSU and was subsequently fired for “eavesdropping,” calls the promotions a “basic union-busting tactic.”
Now that Book Culture officially recognizes the RWDSU, workers have a means of addressing concerns about Doeblin’s behavior without fear of termination. But Doeblin remains in charge, and his actions both before and after the union vote are a reminder that although small bookstores align with progressive values in principle, they don’t always live up to those values in practice. “I hope this can spiral into a larger conversation about why independent businesses, and independent bookstores in particular, have become this liberal symbol at the expense of the workers,” Loeffler-Gladstone says. “It doesn’t matter if that bookstore exists if your fellow human beings are being treated badly.”