August 11, 2015

A Matter of Words – Losing a Customer and Opening a Conversation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 6:20 pm
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Yesterday, we received an anonymous letter in response to this window display commemorating the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting:


There was no return address, and it wasn’t signed.  It was a very short message on a note card telling us that we had lost a customer.  In it, the person said we stoked the flames of enmity between races and promoted division.  The person asked us why we insisted upon doing that.

It’s hard to know how to respond.  What I want to do is call up the customer and chat.  I want to take him or her out for coffee and talk about what those three words mean and why I and our store feel compelled to repeat them in a window along a busy street in what seems to some to be an act of ill will.

There is no way to do that in this case so allow me to publicly answer this letter in hopes that it reaches the person who wrote it or those who agree with its sentiments.

In all honesty, the window makes me nervous.  I come to work every day with the news of protests in our city rattling around in my head.  I worry (justifiably it seems) that we’ll lose customers. I worry that some great books aren’t getting space in that window. I worry that those who sympathize with the message will think we’re trying to cash in on a civil rights movement.

I worry a lot about a lot of things.

I’m a 42 year-old white transgender man. My family’s white. Most of my friends are white. I married two white people and gave birth to a white son. I come from a long line of white people, most of whom had white kids, white friends, white spouses and lived in the middle of America in and around a small town whose largest structure is a metal cross erected along one of the two interstates that bisect it.

Race wasn’t much of a topic of discussion in my life, in that town, in that family – mostly because there were so many white people around us, and it would be easy (and comfortable) if we used that lack of awareness of racial politics to say we weren’t racist.  After all, I didn’t beat anyone up because of their race. My dad didn’t forbid me or my sisters from dating Black people. We all went to church and promised to love one another as God loved us.  We were kind to our neighbors (most of the time) and worked hard.  Worked all the time. Worked and wondered if it would be enough.  Worked even though we knew it probably wasn’t enough. We didn’t set out to hurt anyone.

We’re nice people, and when you’re a nice person, it surprises and hurts when you think you’ve walked a good path and then you’re confronted with evidence that you’ve injured someone. You feel that your character has been attacked, and when you feel attacked, the natural thing to do is defend yourself. You point to all of the evidence that you are a good person.  A peaceful person.

You use your arguments to defeat this attack.

You have black friends, black family members, black co-workers, black heroes.  You don’t need to be told about racism or white privilege. In fact, you might think this whole movement just stirs the pot and creates more trouble than it solves.  It makes people angry and falls on deaf ears. Why, you may ask, do we insist upon bringing it up time and again?

Here’s why.

  • Because even though I can point to the exact moment I heard my mother use the word bitch for the first time, I don’t actually remember the first time I heard the word nigger.  I don’t remember not knowing what it meant and who it was meant for.
  • Because that word was (and still is in some places) commonly used as a prefix for words when the action or status was incompetent, unreliable or sinister – __rig, __knock, __rich __lover.
  • Because the lone Black kid in third grade only lasted a year before his family moved away.
  • Because I can sing the theme songs to Family Ties, the Brady Bunch, the Andy Griffith Show, MASH, the Facts of Life, Friends, Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger and probably hundreds more tv shows beloved to me that featured white families, white friends, white struggles and the occasional black character, but I have to struggle to remember the handful of tv shows featuring people of color.
  • Because when a group of black women attended our church for one reason or another when I was a kid, the occasion was so momentous that a photo of them sitting on our couch in our trailer still lives in the family photo album 35 years later.
  • Because I had a very real, very enlightening conversation with my brown skinned son as recently as this week about his hurt feelings on account of close (white) family members remarking on his (black) friends and (public) school.
  • Because after about 20 years of actively trying to unlearn all of the above, I still make mental corrections, and know that those white people who grew up around me, raised me, were raised by me and wandered in and out of my life do it too even if (especially if?) they are making an effort to be white allies.

My white family, my white friends, white son, white ex lovers are all, each and every one, lovable.

Yes, we’ve loved each other.  Yes, we’re good friends.  We’re compassionate, funny, smart, daring, hard-working and loyal. And we did all of that in a country where we get credit for being all of those things and doing all of those things and know that those things make our lives valuable.  We are privileged to be able to apply for a job, go to college, drive, shop, run through the park, own a firearm, barbecue, apply for a driver’s license, throw a party, swim and be angry in public without representing all white people when we do it.  We don’t have to be the BEST athlete, the RICHEST musician, the MOST POWERFUL leader in the free world, the SMARTEST student in the class to justify our place in sports, music, politics and school.

We live ordinary lives and occasionally some of us do extraordinary things, and our lives matter and our right to our dignity is hard coded into our social pact. The pedigree of all of those things is present and unspoken.

As my partner, Kris said – White privilege is really permission to be ordinary.

These are privileges might’ve refused if we had been asked, privileges we don’t feel like we have, resent having, or resent having to defend ourselves because of.  But those privileges are still ours.  We’re stuck with them.

What I wish I could convey – white person to white person – is that Black Lives Matter does not mean White People are Bad.  It never did.  Saying someone matters does not mean that nobody else matters.  It just says to someone who feels invisible, “I see you and I value you.”

ferg1As a business owner, there is nothing more awful than losing support. It’s scary to think that the livelihoods of the 15 people on staff here can be jeopardized, but we have to be true to the values of this store and its commitment to our community.  Kris and I wouldn’t respect ourselves if we didn’t.

I only hope that when this former customer tells his or her friends why they don’t shop here anymore, that even the loss of their business will prompt a deep discussion between them and their family and friends about race in this city.

To the person who wrote to us – 

I hope that you’ll see the ways we’ve tried to promote constructive discussions about race – our ongoing Ferguson Reading Group, our event with Carol Swartout Klein for her book Painting for Peace in Ferguson, our event with Leah Gunning Francis for her book Ferguson and Faith, the Listen. Talk. Learn. session we hosted with Diversity Awareness Partnership.

I want you to know that our door, hearts and arms are open to you and all others always.

If you do make the switch to Amazon I hope that you’ll keep reading.  As my departing book recommendation to you, I suggest you order Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  For more reading, try our Black Lives Matter Reading List.

We love St. Louis and the rich and various communities and cultures that make up our town.  If we insist on anything, we insist that St. Louis keeps moving, however painfully, toward a better future.

IMAG1260_2Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful week.

Best regards,

Jarek Steele

Co-Owner, Left Bank Books

June 3, 2015

The Bare Minimum – a Small Business Perspective on $15 Per Hour

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jarek Steele @ 9:37 am
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I don’t pay my employees enough.  That’s hard to admit.

I mean, I don’t cross picket lines, I’m a patient driver, I garden vegetables and work in my wood shop, I love animals and people, and I can get along with just about anyone.  I’m a good guy.  And my staff are not just employees to me. I see their talents, their struggles, their hopes and dreams – their lives mean something to me.  They are my friends.

They’re no slouches, either. Among us we have published writers, artists, aspiring lawyers, career booksellers, political activists, bartenders, actors and photographers.  My store is not a place one goes to wash out – it’s a place one goes to click in.

Still, I know they (we) struggle. I’ve only managed to bring the starting salary about .75 above minimum plus free health insurance, book credit, bonuses at the end of the year and an atonal cacophony of booksellers singing happy birthday for each person once a year. It’s enough to make most happy, but not enough to make anyone comfortable.  It’s not even enough to make most people solvent, and it bothers me.

I’ve had an Excel file titled “Payroll Increase Worksheet” active on my desktop for years.  A few times a month I open it and stare at it, willing it into fruition.  I saw a headline today that our mayor wants to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020, so I opened my worksheet again.

I’ve heard people get angry that someone working at McDonald’s would make more than some teachers do now with a wage increase.

I’ve seen Facebook posts about forcing these huge corporations with mountains of cash to be decent to their workers.

We argue over worth – who deserves which wage, what job merits more than another and accuse each other of greed and laziness. It’s an argument rooted in the insecurity that we’ll somehow be left behind, that our hard work won’t be deemed as worthy as the next.

Nobody wants to be conned. Nobody wants to be left holding the bag.

I’m not the kind of guy who thinks $15 per hour is out of line for a minimum wage for anyone. In fact, I think the minimum wage should be tied to the rising cost of living. I think of many of my relatives (and myself in past jobs) making the minimum and know that standing at a fry vat doesn’t seem glamourous or heroic unless you know that the person standing there supports kids or parents or sisters and brothers by serving you your extra value meal. Why don’t they deserve a fair wage? What have they done wrong?

And yet, when I think of giving an across the board raise of nearly 45% in my own business, my stomach clinches. Before you encourage me to take less home, I’ll tell you that I’ve had only two raises since I became an owner. I’ve been with the store 13 years.

Before you tell me I shouldn’t be in business if I don’t want to pay a living wage, I’ll tell you that I’ve struggled deeply with that, and almost agreed with it until I realized that I was falling into the same trap as the argument I described above – that somehow my job of keeping a worthy cultural institution afloat was somehow greedy if I struggled with payroll. It’s something I know well from my own life- poverty shaming- and it’s cruel.

So I have a dilemma that I don’t think I can solve here, but let me just talk this through.

Here’s how the math works in small businesses like mine:

  • A hardcover book retails at about $25.
  • I pay the publisher $13.75 for that book.
  • The remaining $11.25 is used to pay the rent, electricity, gas, insurance, payroll, licenses, advertising and other business costs.
  • Many people buy paperbacks, which retail at about $15 per book. $8.25 of each book goes to the publisher.
  • Most independent bookstores operate on a net profit of about 2% (or .50 of that hardcover book and .30 of that paperback).

Yes, it’s tight.

I won’t publish the finances of my store, (although my staff gets a full report every month), but here’s an image of a payroll calculator created by the American Booksellers Association to illustrate what increases to payroll do to a store’s income. (Note, these aren’t actual figures from my store.)

Hypothetical budget before increase.

Hypothetical budget before increase.

Hypothetical budget after increase.

Hypothetical budget after increase.

So here’s the dilemma:

We can’t raise the prices of books the way a restaurant can raise the prices of hamburgers.  My hands are tied there. In fact, in the age of Amazon, people want a discount.

We work on a pretty tight budget and have an excellent relationship with our landlord.  Our credit is good. Our relationships with our community are excellent.  We do over 250 literary events per year – more than anyone else in the city – and we’re open 7 days per week. We sell to businesses, schools, churches and other places.

Business is good, and we need all 15 full and part-time people on our staff plus two working owners.

I’m the master of making shoestring budgets work, and I’m willing – ready – to give my employees the salary they deserve.  


The question is how we can raise the minimum wage to meet the cost of living and keep businesses like mine afloat.  After all, nobody gets paid if there’s no business.

A Few Thoughts:

In order to make this work, we’ll have to be sane about how to do it and make the playing field a bit more level.

  • If the minimum wage in St. Louis is higher than it is a mile away in University City, new (and existing) small businesses would find it hard to justify a higher cost of doing business in the city. My mandatory minimum wage would be higher than every single other bookstore in the area. How’s that for an unlevel playing field? Yes, I’ll stick with my city. I love it. But my city needs to stick with me and work with me to make this attainable.
  • The increase needs to be gradual.  Adding $162,240 per year to a tight budget like above would be catastrophic.  We have to have time to adapt.
  • Make other fixed expenses easier to reach.  Give tax and other incentives to landlords to rent to locally owned independent businesses at reasonable rates.
  • Reduce fees and taxes for small businesses like ours so we can use that money toward payroll.
  • DON’T provide tax incentives and rebates to huge out of town corporations to come to our city/state and displace existing local businesses.
  • Collect sales tax from Amazon and other online retailers.  It isn’t a new tax. In fact, we pay it every month, but out of state retailers don’t have to – which is not only supremely unfair, it doesn’t make any sense.  According to Caroline Bruckner of Kogod School of Business at American University, if every state including Missouri collected the sales tax they were due, the revenue from online sales would be 20 Billion dollars a year.  It would not only level the playing field for businesses like mine, it would generate tons of income for things like schools, roads and community development. More on that subject can be found here.
  • This next part is simple, but key – shop here.  If people are making more money, that money needs to be spent locally. Local businesses return more then three times as much money to the local economy than chain stores. And believe me, Amazon doesn’t care about replacing the bridge on Kingshighway, and they definitely won’t bring your favorite author to town so you can meet them.
  • (added 6/10/15) Take into consideration the entire benefits package.  My store offers free health insurance including health, vision and dental, up to three weeks vacation plus one week of sick time per year. Investing in our staff’s health and well being creates a return that benefits everyone involved. Less stress on the worker, more productivity from healthy employees and better morale overall. Maybe instead of looking at a strict cash minimum, credit could be given for the value of the entire benefits package.

It comes down to this – It’s not too much to ask to raise the minimum wage. It’s not too much to ask of our society to protect and support its workers. It’s not too much to ask of our community to support its small businesses. It’s not too much to ask to respect both sides of this issue and come up with a good plan that works for us all.

We’re smart people. We can figure this out.

We have to.

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