March 10, 2011

Civil Service Bookshop gives workers a leg up


Roslyn Bergenfeld will help you pass that Senior Mechanical Estimator exam you've been stressing over

The debate over government workers, their benefits, and whether they should have collective bargaining rights has reinvigorated the labor movement since workers took over the Wisconsin capitol building to protest their governor’s plans to essentially destroy government employee unions. Since then other states have been trying to follow Wisconsin’s lead and are working to erode the power unions have to negotiate on behalf of their members.

Still, in all the coverage of the protests, there haven’t been that many stories about the work these government workers do, how they get their jobs, or the support system surrounding them that constitutes its own economy. So it was refreshing yesterday to read on WNYC’s website (New York’s NPR affiliate) a story about a bookstore that has catered to workers trying to pass civil service examinations since just after World War II.

In the story Sarah Kate Kramer profiled the Civil Service Bookshop in lower Manhattan for the WNYC New Blog’s new “Niche Market” series. The store was founded by Roslyn Bergenfeld’s husband roughly 60 years ago and is now staffed by Roslyn and her daughter Amy.

So, you may ask, what does the Civil Service Bookshop sell?

The books that Roslyn and her daughter Amy supply are simple: bound copies of old exams with answer keys. Traffic Device Maintainer, Hoisting Machine Operator, School Crossing Guard, 311 operator — each one of these jobs has its own exam and sample tests are sitting in the rack. Passing the Civil Service exam doesn’t guarantee anyone a job, but a high score lands you higher up on the list.

As Kramer notes, the unemployment rate in New York matches that of the national average (8.9%), so the store has had quite a lot of business lately. And despite the nationwide threat to cut benefits like pay and retirement for civil service workers, government work is still an attractive option for the unemployed. As one patron of the store told Kramer, “I mean, what am I going to do, if that’s one of the benefits that’s gonna cut, it’s just gonna cut. I’m gonna work.”

The piece leaves you with the general impression that the CSB is a lot like the jobs it helps workers gain: sturdy, no-frills, essential to the community. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not without its charms. For instance, I love the fact that instead of a regular phone the store just has a pay phone. “What other kind of phone is there?” Roslyn told Kramer. To which her daughter Amy chimed in, “On 9/11 she was here, all the phones were down in the neighborhood but this payphone we had worked, so a lot of the reporters came in, they were calling.”

As someone who has worked in the service of government employees for nearly 60 years, Roslyn has a unique perspective on the current economic troubles, and some good advice:

The men look terrible. They look very depressed. I can see it in their face. The men want jobs. A man has to work, and the women are supporting the families. We try to help them. We tell them what’s out. We show them the list. We tell them, ‘You missed this test, go for that test.’ It’s very satisfying. Today, we had a couple people come in that got jobs. Then we encourage them: ‘Don’t forget get dressed up when you go for an interview. Wear a clean shirt. Get your hair done.’ It’s hard, you see it all over. I’m not trained, I’m just an old lady with a lot of years of experience.