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Employees unionize at Shelf Life Books in Carytown

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 , then still called Chop Suey, to the McDaniels in 2021. The McDaniels changed the name to Shelf Life a year ago.