Fantasy Bookstore Fights Fantasy Economics

San Francisco sci-fi lovers do battle with the minimum wage

Borderlands is an independent bookstore in San Francisco with an enthusiastic following among science fiction fans. It’s not just a place to buy books, but in the words of its mission statement “a social and professional center for readers, writers, publishers, reviewers, artists and other individuals with a strong interest in the fields of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Macabre Fiction.” Authors frequently appear there, and readers meet for discussions.

Like other bookstores, Borderlands has found staying in business difficult. It nearly closed early in 2015, and management put the blame for this on the city’s increase in the minimum wage. On February 1, it announced:

In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to $15 per hour by 2018. 

Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in principal [sic] and we believe that it's possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco -- Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage. 

Consequently we will be closing our doors no later than March 31st.  The cafe will continue to operate until at least the end of this year.

Thanks to sponsorship from its community, Borderlands was able to avoid closing and is still in business, at least for now. Still, its crisis graphically shows one of the damaging consequences of minimum wage laws.

If the cost of something goes up, people will buy less of it, or if they can’t, they’ll make up for it in some other way. This applies to employees as much as to anything else. Some businesses can raise their prices to meet increased labor costs, but books are a highly competitive market, and consumers are very sensitive to price changes.

Small businesses in general have fewer options. A large operation may be able to absorb the cost or find ways to pass it on. It can reduce hours, require extra duties, or replace people with machines. These options don’t work well when the staff is small and the love of what they’re doing is a big reason they stay there.

Borderlands is hardly a unique case. The management was careful not to take a position against the minimum wage, but zero dollars for unemployed workers isn’t a “living wage,” and it’s meaningless to say that putting low-wage employees out of work is “good for San Francisco.” It is individuals, not a city, who have to get food and a place to live.

A paid sponsorship program was the key to Borderlands’ short-term survival. Science fiction fans are heavily networked, and many work in well-paying jobs, so the store benefited from a community with money to spare.

Well-known authors like Seanan McGuire and Cory Doctorow helped publicize the cause. Borderlands deserves credit for its innovative approach, but other businesses aren’t always so lucky, and they will fold without being widely noticed or mourned. Fans of bookstores realized, perhaps too late, that for the industry to survive as a whole, the bookstore must be profitable as a business venture, rather than a charity case.

Minimum wage increases aren’t magic money. Any cost increase has to come out of something, and low-paying jobs that can’t justify the increase are the first place they’ll come out of. Thinking it happens for free is just fantasy.

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