On Guard: Stop scapegoating the SF minimum wage for business woes 

click to enlarge 29 year old Douglas Slayton works the front counter at Comix Experience on Divisadero. - MIKE KOOZMIN/SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/SF Examiner
  • 29 year old Douglas Slayton works the front counter at Comix Experience on Divisadero.
San Francisco’s minimum-wage hike is still three years away, but its already The City’s newest favorite small-business scapegoat.

The headlines read like doomsday: “Will a higher minimum wage close a bookstore?” “Will the SF minimum wage hike kill our restaurants?”

Yes, San Francisco recently passed a hefty increase to its minimum wage — it will hit $15 an hour by 2018 — but it’s three years off. Yet these businesses say they’re feeling the pinch. But is that really the case?

Locally, sci-fi haven Borderlands Books was the first to throw a tantrum over the wage increase, although it later created an annual sponsorship program for customers that netted enough money to remain open.

Next was Abbot’s Cellar restaurant, which closed recently citing the impending-wage hike.

But on the “The Beer Curmudgeons” podcast, Abbot’s partner, Christian Albertson, mused on why his restaurant didn’t take off — namely, they tried to attract the clientele of Monk’s Kettle, his other restaurant.

“We felt we could tap into that clientele, and it didn’t happen,” Albertson said on the podcast. “We didn’t build it fast enough, and it was too big. We’re competing in a field where there are a lot of good restaurants out there.”

That sure doesn’t sound like the minimum wage impacting his restaurant. It sounds like a very common business problem: differentiating yourself in a crowded market.

Comix Experience is one of the latest businesses to sound the wage alarm.

“As a city, we give multimillion-dollar tax breaks to companies that make millions of dollars,” Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience, told me in reference to tax breaks for companies that moved to the Mid-Market neighborhood. “What do we give to small businesses? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Hibbs does introduce some nuance to the tale. Fair enough, as the minimum wage proposition’s authors, Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Jane Kim, should have paid more attention to how the increase would impact small businesses.

“The mayor has basically abandoned small businesses,” said Alysabeth Alexander, vice president of politics for Service Employees International Union Local 1021. But the minimum wage was not the first salvo on mom-and-pop shops in San Francisco.

“Businesses are being kicked out because of rent hikes and other skyrocketing costs,” Alexander said.

Still, the hike is no small burden. Comix Experience has six employees, Hibbs said, and once the minimum wage reaches $15 an hour he’ll be staring down an $80,000 a year increase. So what’s Hibbs to do?

He could lay off employees, but he’s already running a bare-bones operation. An exception to businesses like restaurants, he can’t increase prices because they are set by publishers. His hands are tied, and not just by Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.

Hibbs’ story mirrors Borderlands, as both are adapting to the new world instead of abandoning it.

Comix Experience is launching a graphic novel of the month club, which you can check out at www. graphicnovelclub.com. For $25 a month, you’ll get a new curated graphic novel each month, with book club meetings to meet the writers and artists behind each comic, and get neat swag like posters and bookmarks.

Hibbs already has 100 subscribers for his new monthly service, and with 224 more, he’ll be able to fully pay for the $80,000 minimum-wage hike. The stories of Comix and Borderlands are interesting, but they don’t have to be the exceptions. Instead of crying wolf, both businesses found creative solutions to stay open — meaning The City will not be deprived of their unique nerdy-goodness, and their staffs will continue to have jobs.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Hibbs said, “and we’ve got a mother right here.”

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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