Employees unionize at Shelf Life Books in Carytown

shelf life employees storefront

Shelf Life Books employees (from left) Smokey Powers, Neda Massalha, Athena Palmer, James de la Rama. (Courtesy United Food & Commercial Workers)

After an ownership change and rebrand in recent years, a long-running local bookstore is embarking on yet another new chapter – as a unionized workplace.

The five employees at Carytown’s Shelf Life Books, formerly known as Chop Suey Books, have formed a union. They hope to kick off contract negotiations with the store’s owners in the coming days, according to Shelf Life employee Athena Palmer.

The store’s workers hope that by unionizing, they’ll strengthen the business and secure their employment amid wider trends in the bookseller industry, Palmer said.

“Indie bookstores can be vulnerable, with the rise of Amazon and dropshipping and everything that takes business away from us. The more voice we have in the store the more successful it is, and we’ve seen that time and time again,” Palmer said. “We want the store to be here in 10, 15, 20 years and we felt having a union would lend itself to that success.”

Palmer said that as far as the Shelf Life employees know, they’re the first Richmond bookstore to unionize.

Palmer said that the store’s workers had discussed unionizing for a couple years and in more recent months reached out to representatives of the Local 400 branch of the international United Food & Commercial Workers union, under whose umbrella the Shelf Life union operates.

Early discussions about unionizing came out of conversations among workers about the mark they want to leave on Shelf Life, said Palmer, a full-time employee who has worked at Shelf Life for two and a half years.

“One of the full-time employees is moving on and we were thinking about what we want to leave behind at this store … that’s what spurred this. We want to, and I think it’s true for the people who are staying like myself, we want to give future employees at this bookstore the security of a union,” Palmer said.

The local effort was also inspired by the efforts of employees at Washington, D.C., bookstores Politics and Prose, and Solid State Books, which have unionized and secured contracts.

The Shelf Life employees shared their plans to unionize with store owner Berkley McDaniel in late January. McDaniel voluntarily recognized the union and Palmer said the store already had a pro-union stance.

“We talked a little about why we wanted to do this, handed over the cards and got back to work to open the store,” Palmer said. “Unions and support for unions is something the store has been vocal about. The store as a whole has been supportive, so I think when it came around it wasn’t a surprise.”

McDaniel, who owns Shelf Life with his wife, said in a statement to BizSense that he welcomed the union that has established itself at his store.

“We want Shelf Life Books to radiate positive energy, both internally among staff and externally in the community. We look forward to working through the union to create the best possible environment for upholding our values,” McDaniel said in an email.

Next up are contract negotiations, in which the workers and their employer will hash out a formal agreement regarding terms of employment, pay, benefits and other topics.

Staff from the Local 400 of the United Food & Commercial Workers helped the Shelf Life union organize and will assist the local group during contract negotiations. The Maryland-based branch of the labor organization represents 35,000 workers in retail, grocery, food processing and other industries in Virginia, Maryland, D.C., Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee.

The creation of the union at Shelf Life comes as the latest of several changes in the last few years at the bookstore, which is located at 2913 W. Cary St. and has operated for more than two decades. Original owner Ward Tefft sold the store, then still called Chop Suey, to the McDaniels in 2021. The McDaniels changed the name to Shelf Life a year ago.

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George MacGuffin
George MacGuffin
29 days ago

First, excellent timing by Tefft. Thank heavens for a unionized book store! Employees no longer forced to give more than 3 recommendations at a time. No longer taxed at the end of shift with having to restack 5 or so books that buyers had a change of heart about at the register. No more grueling away organizing bookmarks at the impulse buy rotating display stand! Upton Sinclair documented more horrors in the book selling trade, but I’ll spare the gentle readers here.

I’d rather, and do, give my book buying $ to Bezos and his ex.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago

Top 5 Comment of the Year. Coal Miners, Meat Packers… introverts-unite.

kay christensen
kay christensen
29 days ago

Stunning…good luck with that. A short shelf life on the horizon.

Michael Patterson
Michael Patterson
29 days ago

So let me get this straight. A brick-and-mortar book store thinks that forming a union is going to extend the life of the business 15 or 20 years? Yeah because time and history has showed that employees unionizing at a small, archaic business in a dying industry does wonders for their lifespan. Geez why didn’t Blockbuster Video think of this?

Last edited 29 days ago by Michael Patterson
Kevin Weiss
Kevin Weiss
29 days ago

I just spit my coffee out I laughed so hard. Ahahaha.

kay christensen
kay christensen
29 days ago

Naivete is not in short supply- on both sides of the issue…They better start slinging a whole lot more books.

Kevin Weiss
Kevin Weiss
29 days ago

I did think this article was satire at first. Gave me a good laugh though regardless. This is a slap in the face of why real unions actually exist.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones
29 days ago
Reply to  Kevin Weiss

What is a real union?

Drew Harrison
Drew Harrison
29 days ago
Reply to  Kevin Weiss

It really is sad. Unions for the trades tend to be a good launch pad for many workers in those trades. Those unions train their workers, get them their certifications and it contributes greatly to a skilled workforce. Then in Right-to-work states, the most entrepreneurial employees move on to their own small businesses. This can suppress wages, but building costs in places like Virginia or South Carolina, right-to-work states, are lower than that of Illinois, Maryland, or Washington. There are other variables at play like building codes and materials costs, but labor cost drives the price of everything higher in… Read more »

Carl Schwendeman
Carl Schwendeman
28 days ago
Reply to  Drew Harrison

The reason why Unions are needed is that workers have to deal with the cost of living and working conduction. The 1926 Movie Metropolis is a good moving showing what happens to workers when it’s a one sided ed relationship with bosses.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago

Not getting paid enough? Need to find an in-demand trade. People do it all the time — become an echo-cardiologist or something.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago
Reply to  Drew Harrison

Yes, I am from NYS and trades unions monopolies were a real bane on not only anyone with a building but the entire economy.

Bill Foster
Bill Foster
29 days ago

Wonton would be ashamed.

Phil Brock
Phil Brock
29 days ago

The kids are alright. Instead of making fun of them, what if we just learned something from them. Plans of all different types work out and don’t work out. We all have dreams and ideas and sometimes they pan out sometimes they don’t. When it comes down to it, every venture is completely made up and could fail. And every dream could succeed. I find it interesting that one of the implications is how much these employees care about and want to invest in the future of the store. I would like to hear more about that. For a generation… Read more »

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago
Reply to  Phil Brock

I think it tends to be the young who need to learn.

Joey perry
Joey perry
27 days ago
Reply to  Phil Brock

Yeah I’m going to have to agree with Shawn on this one. They need a reality check. This shelf life is about to be on life support real fast. These kids need to learn a ton before doing anything else in life. I hate to see their finances. Like most people their age who think in archaic ways like this need a life eye opener as do most people at that age. I get it they may be seriously introverted and fragile but these types need to get over it before the world rubs them over real fast with the… Read more »

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
26 days ago
Reply to  Joey perry

Thanks. Yes, part of the problem is becoming that there is a section of the culture that has as a religion the shaming and silencing those who are willing to, kindly or unkindly, pointing out reality to young people as early as possible. These create-your-own reality evangelists, who are always there (I once resembled these people, even these kids) not only do first world kids a disservice delaying the day they grit their teeth and figure out how to be more useful to society and getting a higher value added job (I remember being shocked when a college drop out… Read more »

George Macguffin
George Macguffin
26 days ago
Reply to  Joey perry

This isn’t a generational issue. This is a booger-eater issue, and every generation has them.

*booger-eater: the emotionally and developmentally inmature or naive (lest I get my comment deleted).

Brian Glass
Brian Glass
29 days ago

Why did the Owners need a union to “uphold its values?” They could have just worked it out with the employees. Think, for example, Chic- Fil -A on a far larger scale.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
26 days ago
Reply to  Brian Glass

I suspect this is actually some kind of marketing scheme.

Drew Harrison
Drew Harrison
29 days ago

If I were a group of employees and I wanted to increase employee morale, I would try to convince the owner to form a co-op when the workers can become the owners. Let the employees buy in. My guess is that these 5 employees would not do it because: “why would I buy into the business of a brick and mortar book shop in 2024?”

Dr. Abe Gomez
Dr. Abe Gomez
28 days ago
Reply to  Drew Harrison

Setting up a co-op is probably too “capitalistic” for them. That’s the vibe the picture above sends. God forbidden they have to take on any additional responsibilities or put more effort into the success of the business.

Arnold Hager
Arnold Hager
28 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Abe Gomez

Now they can have their conventions in Las Vegas, NV.

Jay Emory
Jay Emory
28 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Abe Gomez

Wow. There are a lot of assumptions being made here without any actual real world knowledge of these employees. Didn’t your mom ever teach you not to judge a book by its cover?

Dr. Abe Gomez
Dr. Abe Gomez
27 days ago
Reply to  Jay Emory

Yes, but a picture is worth 1,000 words!

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago
Reply to  Jay Emory

I don’t think anyone needs to make any assumptions.

Joey perry
Joey perry
27 days ago
Reply to  Jay Emory

Unfortunately the picture speaks for itself. I hate to say it but that type yes it speaks really bad things. It’s called crying for attention. It’s sad but it’s pathetic too.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
26 days ago
Reply to  Drew Harrison

The crazy thing is that if you want a future where you are more economically independent, the LAST thing you want to tie yourself to is a mom-and-pop business with no hope of ADVANCEMENT.

Ironically to these young folks’ view of the world, it makes far more sense to sign on to Amazon, which pays well, or even Walmart, where one can at least ADVANCE if one is REALLY deserving of higher income — last I checked, the current CEO of Walmart worked his way up from the cashier or stocker level.

Freddie Edwards
Freddie Edwards
29 days ago

Hahahahahaha………….Oh Wait? You’re Serious? hahahahaha

Michael Boyer
Michael Boyer
28 days ago

Picket line forming in Carytown soon

Fred Squire
Fred Squire
28 days ago

At first I was like they activated the link for the April Fools story 12 days too early. I can’t believe this is actual news and also wondering what benefits are being gained? How grueling are the work hours and how unsafe is the bookstore? Are they open from 1am to midnight currently and climbing the bookshelves on ladders with only 3 legs and the cash register is next to a viper pit? I would imagine a local independent bookstore in any current form is probably a place of employment with low stress levels, good quality of life and reasonable… Read more »

Michael Boyer
Michael Boyer
28 days ago

WHAT!, union dues how often?

George MacGuffin
George MacGuffin
28 days ago
Reply to  Michael Boyer

Fuggetaboudit

David McGrann
David McGrann
28 days ago

I don’t believe that unionizing five people at an independent BK store or one random Starbucks helps the unions or their cause much. Better that the UFCW tries to unionize all of the supermarkets they’ve lost over the years.

Charles Frankenhoff
Charles Frankenhoff
28 days ago

how does the union help the store? I’m all for workers getting paid more, but that seems more likely to put a local book store out of business

Dr. Abe Gomez
Dr. Abe Gomez
28 days ago

I thought about it for a few minutes, then came to the conclusion….I can’t think of a better way to waste time and resources then what was explained in the article. This is a joke right? The real article is coming out later today? Please tell me there is a part 2 to the article explaining how this example of unionization is a benefit for anyone. I pity the owner of the book store.

Scott Brown
Scott Brown
28 days ago

Unions were very important to American history. They were needed to protect employees from companies and people that would take advantage of them. Thank goodness we have laws and very few monopolies at this time. Now they hurt business instead of protecting workers. Their time has pasted.

George MacGuffin
George MacGuffin
28 days ago
Reply to  Scott Brown

Scott, not being condescending, but you do know that monopolies in fact exist albeit under a different name?

Today they’re called hedge funds or asset funds or investment funds.
Black Rock has over $10 trillion in assets under their umbrella.

Texas just yanked over $8B earlier this week due to Black Rock’s ESG pursuits, that came with the weight of their monopolistic heft.

Last edited 28 days ago by George MacGuffin
Rob Smith
Rob Smith
28 days ago

I’ve got a crazy idea. Why don’t these employees compete against each other, work harder, drive up sales, lower expenses and prove to their boss that they are worth being paid more?

Michael Boyer
Michael Boyer
28 days ago
Reply to  Rob Smith

No,only do the alloted work assigned ,no more.

George MacGuffin
George MacGuffin
28 days ago
Reply to  Rob Smith

Rob, this union is merely a supercilious manifestation of quiet quitting

Tom Joseph
Tom Joseph
28 days ago

I bet they have a tip jar on the front counter too.

kay christensen
kay christensen
28 days ago

The activist class…let’s march, let’s march!

Jack Stevens
Jack Stevens
28 days ago

I think they misunderstood union for polyamorous.

Brian King
Brian King
28 days ago

Go ahead and form a union. It will be hard to live on 15 an hour whether you’re union or not.

August Keller
August Keller
28 days ago

Brutal working conditions certainly justify need for union. Plus need protection for eyes and thumbs from all screen time viewing/posting to social media and texting.

Carl Schwendeman
Carl Schwendeman
28 days ago

The mention of U word setting up shop in a store seems to strike more fear in Virginia then Freddy Krueger or Godzilla showing up.
I really think nothing is going to happen if it was there or if it wasn’t there at this store.

George MacGuffin
George MacGuffin
28 days ago

This has nothing to do with fear, it is revulsion to the absurd.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago

The anti-car guy wants every unskilled employee unionized too — shocked.

Charles Simmons
Charles Simmons
27 days ago

Seems like a huge waste of time. Why not invest this energy in something that would bring traffic into the store? Everyone knows this is a dying industry, but a local bookstore with something to offer besides stuck-up employees who treat you like you are lesser than them would most likely do wonders and would certainly be more useful than unionizing.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
26 days ago

Well, maybe that is exactly what this is? Seems absurd to those who know better, but things often have INTERNAL logic when people think with Ideology over reality — like spend some time with Mormons and get involved in their theological discussions — something crazy might make total sense in that context, political religions same phenomenon. As a former bookish person myself, I can attest to the fact that a lot of such people tend to like comfy corners away from scary noises to live life through text and they often have comforting notions about things like Unions being substitute… Read more »

Steven Cohen
Steven Cohen
27 days ago

Personally; this is a great way to kill small business America. If I was the business owner and in the position I would close the store and tell the ‘Unionized’ staff to GFT. This is a perfect example of worker entitlement Generation Alpha!

Joey perry
Joey perry
27 days ago
Reply to  Steven Cohen

I don’t believe they are young enough to be alpha. Looks like a later version of gen z sadly. My daughter is a gen alpha yes she is only two years old but I think she is the tail end of gen alpha. Can’t remember when gen z stops and gen alpha starts.

Michael Boyer
Michael Boyer
27 days ago

I guess the order of business now is to elect a shop steward.this person is responsible for communicating with the big union mafia office in New Jersey.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
27 days ago

Wait till they find out they have to pay dues to guys in NJ.

Bob Lorg
Bob Lorg
23 days ago
Reply to  Shawn Harper

I love all the knee jerk anti-union comments exposing everyone’s fear and ignorance! keep em coming!