On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore
Like the subtitle implies, On the Books is a graphic novel that focuses on labour relations in an east coast bookstore. The simple panelled blue ink artwork illustrates the story of the bookstore, with personal sidebars from various people who had firsthand experience with the struggle. Visually the work is reminiscent of the graphic representation of Studs Terkel’s infamous Working series. The illustrations back up the narrative, often adding a comic element to the serious material.
The story revolves around New York’s Strand Bookstore, which is one of the few unionized bookstores in the area. NYC mainstays like Patti Smith and Richard Hell have reportedly browsed the shelves in the long running independent bookstore. Focused on events that occurred in 2012, Farrell takes an unflinching look at the book selling industry, the reality of union membership and relations with employers. The frustration that the sellers experience is relatable to the majority of people who have spent a significant amount of time in a service industry; rude customers, grouchy bosses who want to cut wages and increase profits and strained relations between the faithful long time mainstays and the revolving door of new hires. The repeated refrain of customers who simply browse in order to research what they are going to order from Amazon reflects the modern struggles of musicians, book sellers and independent record stores in a constantly evolving internet age.
Farrell offers various perspectives on the issues presented, giving time to employers, union reps, disgruntled employees and new hires who are dismissive of the importance of union relations. There are a variety of challenges presented in the work, the most obvious being the employees vs. the store owner. But, there is infighting within the employees as well, due to a curious two tier system within the union, which adds to tensions. The complex layers of what appears to be a simple, small bookstore on the surface makes the story interesting. It allows the reader to ponder what sort of things are happening behind the scenes at their favorite restaurant or record store.
The graphics add depth to the story, with colorful characters helping to ease the seriousness of labour relation discussions. The Monopoly man shows up to represent greedy employers, there are drunken manatees and wolves eating lollipops. Some of the offbeat cartoon choices are evident in the character’s words, but some appear to be an inside joke that the reader is not privy to. The choice to present this matter as a graphic novel was a good one, as it provides an incentive to read through the serious matter for those who may not immediately relate to the labour struggle message.
Without delving too much into the plot of the story and therefore ruining the read, it is important to note that while the bulk of the story is focused on labour struggles in 2012, the update at the end gives a promising look at the state of unionized Strand workers as of July 2014. This graphic novel is a fascinating read for anyone who has passionately worked in a service industry and dealt with the unpleasantness of dealing with greedy employers. It is an interesting addition to labour literature, but it also has appeal to those who work low paying jobs day after day simply because they love what they are doing. The people at Strand obviously love selling books and are doing their best to live their lives as best they can within the limitations the reality of the industry imposes today. (Dustin Blumhagen)
Purchase On the Books here: http://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/books/5161/