Wednesday, August 3, 2011

End of an Era

During the terminal year of my grandmother's illness, Borders was one of my 'escape' places. If you have  ever been a caretaker for someone with a long term illness, no matter how much you love them, after awhile your mental facilities will degenerate  and you will find yourself plotting how to carve out precious moments just for you.( I'm talking about the time before caretaker burn-out was readily recognized. Until then, you were just considered a selfish whiner.)

When I knew Mom was safely in bed asleep and would not be moving for a few hours, I would change into something a little bit better looking than jeans and a tee shirt, put on my make-up, and drive to the Borders two miles away to drink coffee, read magazines and remember what it was like having a life. It sounds shallow to read it in print, but those weekly treks to Borders made me feel human. I could be with people who didn't need me to be their nurse. I could just blend in...and breathe. I could be real and not the shadow of who I had been. The coffee was good, the barista's were chatty and funny and just being in the cafe or walking through the isles made me feel like I was still connected to  the world.

After Mom died, I went back to work-out of necessity, because I needed the income as well as the interface with others. It had been years since I'd worked retail, and everything was new and exciting and frightening. The only place I'd been than home was church. I took a job at Macy's because I had worked in a department store as a teenager and it was familiar, but  I hated the cut-throat attitude of my co-workers and the negativity of the management ( our daily company news letter rarely had a happy smiley face in the upper corner reserved as the indicator of sales. It was depressing.) But I loved the customers, I loved being helpful, and I loved the excitement of working again. After a couple of years at Macy's, I reassessed if I wanted to have a few more dollars or be happy, and I opted for I applied to Borders and got a job as a bookseller. I took a $2 an hour pay cut to preserve my sanity.

I am not the most computer-tech savvy human on the earth-far from it, and frankly, I like it that way most of the time. Borders used three databases and an ordering system that booksellers needed to be proficient enough to flip between in seconds. There were hundreds of codes the corporation used to classify books, music and other merchandise. The booksellers had to have a working knowledge of where to find titles without using the computer to look them up, and it was up to us to stock and order titles in our assigned specialty areas, then shelve the books as they came in and call customers about any special orders when they arrived. In addition, we were expected to have actually read new bestsellers as they were released so we could discuss them with the customers, and to be knowledgeable in our 'specialty' areas- mine was animals, ecology,herbs, crafts and collectibles, inspirational, spiritual, religion (including religious texts like Bibles and Korans) and metaphysical /occult. There were three of us assigned there, and I was the only full-time employee for that area, which was a full quarter of the store. To this day I don't know how I learned it all in ten days of training.

The store was huge. The Borders I worked in was a 'flagship store', meaning we carried every title available imaginable, and if it wasn't on he shelves, we had better know how or where to get it...and be perky about it. No frowning at the computer screen at the order desk, and you were expected to stop everything and place a special order from the computerized cash register if necessary. Oh, and don't dare be more than 11 cents off either direction on the til, or your name went up on the Wall of Shame in the employees' lounge, and everyone knew about it. All of this I did gladly for $6.20 an hour when minimum wage was $6.15. To be fair, we had great insurance coverage and a 25% off employee discount on non-sale items, plus a 'book account' of $30 a month where you could choose books, CDs and other merchandise for free. The first year I saved up all my book account credit until Employee Sale Day right before Christmas and walked out with hundreds of dollars of presents which cost me absolutely nothing at all.

Borders made us feel loved. The Borders Brothers were still in charge of the company when I started working for them, and the store had the vibe and feel of an intimate coffeehouse/bookstore. We fueled ourselves with free coffee all day, and dealt happily with the thousands of customers who tramped around the store daily. Friday and Saturday nights were magic: people came in around six p.m. to listen to the free music, join book discussions, listen to free demonstrations and talks given by the booksellers ( which you received a ten dollar gift certificate for presenting!), interact with local authors read from their latest books, drink gallons of coffee with free refills, browse the magazines and lay in the floor in the isles reading books. We used to have to gently chide the customers who got too comfortable, or step carefully over them because they were lost in the pages of the newest release. It was a circus.

Being a bookseller was one of the most satisfying jobs I ever had. Most of my co-workers were younger and many were college age because we were near the university...and gay- Borders was a safe haven for the LBGT community to be open about their sexuality in the workplace. The comradeship was intense and surreal: we used to joke about being on the island of Misfit Toys, because no matter who you were, you found your niche. We were a bunch of tattooed freaks-all of the book and music sellers and the baristas had at least one tattoo, and if you didn't have one, you got one during your tenure. My rose and butterfly tat was a gift for my 44th birthday from my co-workers. I look upon it as a rite of passage, like piercing your ear when you sail across the Equator.

Then the unthinkable happened- one of the Borders Brothers died and the other one decided to retire. The board of directors of Borders,Inc. hired a new CEO who never had anything to do with books or publishing but would be "good for business". The first thing he did was remove the arm chairs and coffee tables and eliminate the reading areas. The cafe had a 20 minute time limit for customers, and you could no longer browse the magazines. Booksellers were not allowed to chat with the customers to allow them to decide on what they wanted to buy, and you were required to pull a book a book off the shelf and place it in their hand, then hard sell it to them. They fired most of the lead booksellers because they felt they would be an impediment to business and trained new assistant managers. I hung on about a month before I quit. My manager, who had been given her notice, baked cookies for us on my last night, and my friends from the staff gave me an espresso maker because I was cross-trained as a barista. It was a tearful evening, but it was for the best because as Thomas Wolfe wrote, " You can't go home again."

The "New and Improved Borders" lasted exactly ten years after I left. They might as well have closed the doors right then and there, because not only did they strip the company of it's friendliness, they branched out into a frenzy of selling 'side-line items'-things that had a vague connection to books in general or the merchandising that went along with things like Star Wars or Harry Potter. Nearly half the store was now other things and not books. The booksellers left and associates were hired in their place. Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble put in reading areas and expanded their cafe and Borders formerly loyal and now betrayed customers flocked to their stores...and I don't blame them one bit because Borders sold-out. Interestingly, the two or three independent bookstores in the area are still in business to this day. They were never threatened by Borders in the beginning, because we worked together and carried different titles. If the independent store didn't have it or couldn't find it, they actually referred their customers to Borders, and I often called the small stores for obscure titles when a customers didn't want to wait for Harvest Booksearch to find it at a premium price.

If you have never worked in a bookstore, you won't understand the sense of connection between booksellers. Booksellers instinctively know one another before they ever meet. It's more of a vocation than a job, because booksellers are ardent readers-and lovers- of books. They are knowledgeable, intelligent, quirky people who are school teachers or students by day, or worked at the local banks, or businesses so they could indulge their book buying habit by night. Books were and are more than just pages, cardboard, cloth and glue. They have life and soul and are the portal to other worlds beyond and spark our imaginations. Books hold more than the author's words, they are the author's mind and hold a part of their soul. Books are living things, and that's why I'm pretty sure I'll never own an e-reader. I love my home library of books, they are old friends I can count on to give me answers or help me to ask questions. I have formed a personal relationship with every author of every book I own because I can hold a piece of that person in my hands, and the volumes have become worn with use, combining our energies. Books are a sacred thing because we have set them apart to honor and admire, because they have inspired us, and because many hold the key to our very souls.


  1. I love this post. It reminds us that Borders was once more than just a business, and that America is losing more than just a bookstore chain.

  2. Sounds like a great place to have worked. I recall going to my local bookstore and often end up helping newbies choose the appropriate book from the "metaphysical" section.

  3. I never had the pleasure of knowing a Borders bookstore in that era. Our local bookstore is a B&N complete with a Starbucks cafe next door and while it used to be a really cool place to go, they reduced the number of "New Age" material, then moved it from the Religion section to a very obscure area of the store. After that insult, I stopped patronizing them. There are no small bookshops in my area, so I'm an Amazon customer. I would love to have the experience that you had as a bookseller and barista :) Thank you so much for sharing this. It puts such a personal touch on the entire Borders closing.

  4. I also worked in Borders as did my Mom, it was sad to see how much it changed from when my Mom started 13 so years ago (and I would beg to go to work with her instead of to school) and when I started 3 years ago. I lasted 2 years before I decided to quit before they could fire me due to my lack of cooperation in forcing people to buy books they didn't want. I'm definitely going to miss Borders.

  5. I worked for Borders from 1997 to 2010. My early years were great. I worked mainly in the children's section, which I loved. We had great control over our displays, and could order books that would sell well in our store. Then "corporate" (ie business majors who had never worked in a bookstore) started taking over everything. Pretty soon every Borders started to look alike. Then they started hiring people who didn't read much (gasp). And don't get me started on the policy where corporate picked a few titles and we had to try to sell those to everyone. Last year I decided I'd had enough and left. Besides, I could see the writing on the wall -- I was surprised they made it through Christmas.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing. Reading this, it's very clear to me how much you loved working at Border's. I've never set foot in one (none nearby) and have never been a bookseller, but I think I understand what you mean describing your peers there ... I've been an avid reader since I was a young girl and have hundreds of books here at home. And I know that I will never own an e-reader. Reading a book is a sensual experience for me. An electronic device can't duplicate the feel or smell of the paper, the weight of it in my hands, the shadows cast from the lamp behind my shoulder. I'm sure the readers have their place, but they aren't for me. ;)

  7. I could never put my finger on it, but I had wondered what was different and what I caused it. I had been a huge Borders customer--but when I joined the Navy, I went straight from boot camp and training to deployment, and when I next hit up a Borders for a good read, it was missing the vibe that pulled a reader in and made them at home.


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