In the Bluff
February 18, 2011 Leave a comment
I was just talking with a good friend of mine, and she made the excellent observation that the world seems especially volatile these days. Maybe it is because we are both in publishing, where indie bookstores continue to shutter at a daily pace and Borders, the second largest chain bookstore, just filed for bankruptcy and is closing approximately one-third of its stores. I was very surprised and dismayed to see the list of stores being closed, including the store on University Avenue in Madison, which in my opinion (based on visiting dozens of Borders over the years) is among the best in the chain (and is especially well managed).
I know there is a certain amount of schadenfreude in some online posts about the demise of one of the industry’s 800-pound gorillas. But let’s try to remember that the two biggest groups of folks most impacted by the closing of Borders stores are the store employees and the American consumer. With respect to the employees, in my visits to Borders stores over the years, I have always been impressed by the professionalism and book knowledge of these staffers (I know it is probably un-PC for me to point this out, but people who work at the chains very often display the same love for books and the industry as those at indie stores). In one fell swoop, many of these people are without jobs, for reasons that have nothing to do with them. My heart goes out to them and to all the folks who have lost jobs in the course of the shake-up of our industry. With respect to the consumer, the closing of Borders stores (including three in Milwaukee, which has already taken its lumps on the bookstore front) will mean fewer choices for buying books. And this can certainly have a deleterious effect on the ability for publishers to take risks on new authors and important titles. I am hopeful that there will be some upside in sales for indies and Barnes & Noble. But I cannot help but feel that we may be witnessing the start of a sea change in the industry that many of us have been discussing for years.
This overarching feeling of volatility may also be based on living in Wisconsin, where the governor is busy taking on the state and municipal employees and pushing to effectively reduce their salaries by increasing employee benefit costs and removing union protection (in fact, by the time this is posted, the state legislature will have likely approved the governor’s actions). What a mess! To single out these hardworking folks who are in many ways the backbone of our communities, providing necessary functions required by the citizens, teaching our children, and acting as the only interface many of us have with the government, is just wrong. There is this tremendous misperception that public employees are overpaid and receive too much on benefits vis-à-vis private employees; in fact, empirical evidence shows that these employees are actually underpaid, including benefits, when compared with private employees. Moreover, if this bill goes through, much like the Border’s closings, it will have impacts far beyond the employees directly affected. On average, these employees will lose about $2,000–$3,000 in annual salary from these changes; this is money that is spent in our communities on groceries, restaurants, movies, and, yes, books. I fear the ripple effect this decrease in salary will have on our general economy.
As I write this, tens of thousands of state employees, mostly teachers, are in Madison standing up for their rights. These calls for fairness will sadly be ignored by our state. I think we all know we are living in times that require some measure of sacrifice (and to the public employees’ benefit, they acknowledge as much and are willing to find some compromise). But to single out one group (mostly made up of middle-class workers) while, for example, refusing to look at increasing taxes (and thus revenues) on the most fortunate in our society is simply bad form. Stay tuned—this sort of action may be coming soon to your state.
Now, not all the change and upheaval is bad. I watched the uprisings in Egypt very closely for the past several weeks and found myself choking up last week when the Mubarak government fell. You could feel the pride of the Egyptian people radiating from the television. It felt like 1989 all over again, with democracy spreading across parts of the world previously kept in the shadows of freedom. Perhaps this is one of those incredible moments in time when we can learn from the Middle East that it is right to stand up for what you believe in and use peaceful means to be heard and call for change, and that civil society requires the diligence and contribution of all of its citizens, and that at the end of the day, we work best when we work together.