Controversy hard to shelve at bookstore.
Izzie Harbaugh is turning in her grave.
Harbaugh was long the lifeblood of Mother Kali's Books, Oregon's oldest feminist bookstore and a bastion of progressive, strong-willed women who wanted a place of their own.
The longtime board member and manager kept the store going for 20 years until her death in 1999. During her last five years, in fact, the grandmotherly radical never took a paycheck.
But Mother Kali's has faltered in her absence.
The 28-year-old store is tens of thousands of dollars in debt and could be bankrupt by fall. To cut back, the board eliminated all four staff positions in January. Then the former employees charged the board with unfair labor practices, and protesters have set up shop outside the front door.
At the heart of it all, years of internal discord suggest that the bookstore's founding ideals may be pushing the Eugene institution to the brink.
"It's a feminist conflict," said Lorraine Ironplow, a former board member. "Feminism is about changing the world or actualizing ideals. This is about how you do that in real life, with real financial pressures and interpersonal conflicts."
Anti-labor image ironic
For decades, the nondescript storefront west of the University of Oregon has been a gateway to a woman's world of literature, poetry and politics.
Inside the door stands "Jane," the 8-foot-tall, apple-red sculpture of a naked woman, a symbol of feminine strength.
Books range on subjects from Middle-eastern women to parenting to gay religion. Popular titles include the venerable "Our Bodies, Ourselves," "Heather Has Two Mommies" and works by Audre Lourde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Sarah Waters.
One afternoon this week, a Norah Jones CD played to a mostly empty store. A man in a camouflage jacket marched in, placed a pro-labor flyer on the front counter and said, "I just want to say I'll never do business with you again."
It's ironic to see the bookstore attacked as unfriendly to liberal values. Mother Kali's was a local player in organizing against the anti-gay ballot initiative of 1992. More than 1,000 people came to a 25th anniversary celebration in 2000.
"It's not only literature by women, for women or about women, it's all ranges of feminist thought," said Debra Merskin, an associate professor in communication studies at the university. "It's a gathering place for not only women's groups that need a safe, comfortable place to be, but other groups that are involved in social issues."
Harbaugh's death created crisis
Problems began with Harbaugh's death. The not-for-profit bookstore - run by a board of directors - needed to hire and pay employees who replaced Harbaugh.
That "put a big crunch on the store," said former board member Joyce Thomas, especially as the economy sagged and major book retailers cut into the market.
There were personality clashes, but no consensus on the store's direction. "There were disagreements among board members, and between board members and staff," Thomas said.
Former manager Tova Stabin said Ironplow, the sole board member during that period in 2002, had too much power. Stabin felt the methods to address grievances and select board members were ineffective, and that board and staff roles were unclear.
Ironplow said it was clear that the board oversaw staff members - they just didn't like it.
The two disagreed over store management and whether an employee accused of sexually harassing co-workers was appropriately disciplined. She was reprimanded and told to attend an awareness class, and she later left the store.
In fall 2002, Stabin left and three of the four staff members followed, Ironplow said, although the terms - whether she was fired or resigned and whether the staff quit or was forced out - are points of contention.
Both sides seek mediator
Today three women comprise the board: Kathleen Kendrick, an elementary teacher who also works with developmentally disabled people; Daryl Moore, a Federal Express driver; and Donella Alston, an office coordinator in ethnic studies at the UO.
Karen Luna, the manager and sole regular employee now, will make decisions about books, while the board sets policy and procedure, Kendrick said. They'll work together on the store's direction, but Luna and any part-time help will be subject to the board, she said.
Last April, the four women who replaced the earlier staff organized with the Industrial Workers of the World because of unresolved issues and the desire for a work contract.
After the board eliminated their jobs in January, they charged the board with prohibiting access to health-care benefits and failure to negotiate.
A representative with the National Labor Relations Board is expected in the coming weeks to take statements, and both sides also seek a mediator. Informational picketing will continue, former co-managers Cheryl RiversHailey and Sandy Pasman said this week.
Unrest hurts textbook sales
The rancor has attracted attention at the university, where professors such as Elizabeth Reis, an assistant in the Women's and Gender Studies Program, stopped ordering books from Mother Kali's since the first round of discord.
"A feminist bookstore ought to have progressive policies when it comes to labor issues," Reis said.
Professors can choose to order books from suppliers other than the UO Bookstore, and several have chosen Mother Kali's to provide books for their classes, with students instructed to go there to buy the course materials.
Textbook sales in January, April and October account for two-thirds or more of its business. Reis' decision alone costs Mother Kali's 400 books for just one class.
Mother Kali's annual revenue in 2002 was $400,000. The store broke about even after last fall's textbook season, but it ended the year $20,000 in debt - mostly from having too many employees, Kendrick said.
The debt could rise another $40,000 to $60,000 once the bookstore has identified what it owes suppliers for earlier business, she said.
Kendrick is penning the board's side of the current labor strife in a letter to UO professors, and she hopes the new structure - one manager with occasional part-time help - will restore confidence.
But Ironplow remains a wild card.
She was Harbaugh's partner in life and in the business, and she plans to donate as much as $25,000 - Harbaugh's retirement money - to keep the store afloat to the fall textbook sales. But current and former staffers say her participation suggests the board members haven't learned the lessons of the earlier labor discord, and that could discourage professors.
Ironplow, in fact, meant her donation to be anonymous - but only to avoid the limelight, she said, not because she feared her name would hurt the store's chances to recover.
She urged everyone to focus on the bigger picture: "Do you really want to take sides when the institution may fold?"
Common cause not enough
Bob Bussel, director of the UO's Labor and Education Research Center, said Mother Kali's faces challenges that often hit not-for-profit or progressive businesses.
Employers who rely on workers to embrace a common cause - without providing those workers with clear policies and procedures - can run into trouble, he said.
"There's a sense that there is a common cause that draws people to the work - `You're not here for the money, you're here for the cause,' ' Bussel said. "When the employment issues get considered, it can become pretty problematic."
At Mother Kali's, he said, sides could form easily between workers' rights or the feminist mission to keep the store alive.
Like Bussel, Jeanine Malito, a union consultant, sees the problems in labor terms - a breakdown in communication between staff and the board. But she used feminism to describe it.
"Feminism means trying to keep that ongoing conversation," Malito said. "It's power with - not power over."
Tiffany Haggmark, a 19-year-old volunteer at Mother Kali's, hopes for an amicable solution.
She was 12 when she lost her mother to cancer. During the trips downtown to Sacred Heart Medical Center, Haggmark sometimes wandered over to Mother Kali's; there, she found books with answers to scary questions about the death of a parent, in a comforting environment.
"The store, like your mom, sometimes it can be there to answer tough questions," she said. "It seems like things could be cleared up pretty easily, it's just people need to make decisions. And talk."
MOTHER KALI'S THROUGH TIME
November 1975: Mother Kali's Books opens on 11th Avenue near Lincoln Street in Eugene.
1976: Bookstore moves to 541 Blair, next to "an auto mechanic who hated us and often said so at the top of his lungs," former board member Lorraine Ironplow said.
September 1979: Izzie Harbaugh joins the bookstore.
1989: Bookstore moves to 2001 Franklin Blvd. Store begins significant textbook sales.
Fall 1992: Bookstore is a major organizer for the "No On 9" campaign against an anti-gay ballot initiative.
Jan 12, 1999: Harbaugh dies unexpectedly; Ironplow becomes board president.
November 2000: Store celebrates 25th anniversary with party at the university's Agate Hall.
September and October 2002: Internal conflicts end with Ironplow, manager Tova Stabin and three of the four other staffers leaving the business, Ironplow said.
January and February 2004: The board eliminates four staff positions and hires one full-time manager. The former staff files unfair labor practice charges. Picketing begins.
Tiffany Haggmark, 19, returned to volunteer at Mother Kali's after her job was terminated. As a 12-year-old, she would wander in and read about cancer while her mother battled the disease at nearby Sacred Heart Medical Center, and she soon developed strong personal ties to the bookstore. Mother Kali's Izzie Harbaugh, shown at Mother Kali's in the early 1980s, was a guiding light for the business. The store has struggled without her.
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|Title Annotation:||Business; Labor unrest reflects ideological conflicts at Mother Kali's|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Feb 19, 2004|
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