Brace yourselves, folks. This is a long one.
At work the other day, while I was writing paperback copy, I was distracted by a tweet linking to this Ode to Borders. The ode itself, in the form of a snarky list of things booksellers never told you and displayed by employees at an undisclosed Borders store, was amusingly true. Some of my favorite points?
- If you don’t know the author, title, or genre, but you do know the color of the cover, we don’t know either. How it was our fault we couldn’t find it we’ll never understand.
- We never were a daycare. Letting your children run free and destroy our kids section destroyed a piece of our souls.
- Oprah was not the “final say” on what was awesome. We really didn’t care what was on her show or what her latest book club book was. Really.
- When you returned your SAT books, we knew you used them. We thought it wasn’t fair—seeing that we are not a library.
Anyone who has ever worked in retail (I don’t care if it was selling books or clothes or electronics) can sympathize with this list. None of it is unreasonable or controversial, and none of it should be that surprising to anybody. Or, so I thought.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading the comments, drawn in by a few posts of humorous commiseration and then unable to look away as posts appeared slinging hateful words at these booksellers who, through no fault of their own, were losing their jobs. They were the sort of comments that thoughtless, self-important, and uninformed Americans have an infuriating knack for. And even though it was obvious to me that these people had never worked a day on the front lines of the customer service industry, their words still upset me.
The above list is not a recording of things the booksellers said to customers when frustrated, these are things they vented about to each other in the stock room and, upon closing their doors forever, decided to share. If you think this sort of thing is unique to Borders or booksellers and doesn’t happen at every retail store that has ever existed, then you, my friend, are either incredibly naive or incredibly stupid. If you think that Borders went out of business because its booksellers were rude, or because they didn’t work their asses off, or weren’t passionate about books or music or comics or movies, well, from the pages of one of my favorite books, you know little and less.
Borders closed because of a string of poor business decisions that began a decade ago when it handed its website over to Amazon and rapidly expanded its bricks-and-mortar stores overseas, not because its booksellers had a bad attitude (they didn’t, by the way). Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that near the end some of them should have been granted sainthood. As a shopper, what you wouldn’t know, is that in those final years staff at every store was cut in half. Then trimmed again. And again. By the end of my time at Borders last year, there were some days when there were only 2 people free on the floor—meaning they weren’t at register, scrambling to move things out from the stock room, tied to the Paperchase section, or cleaning human shit off the floors of the bathroom and sometimes even the floor of the store (that this is apparently an occurrence at many locations is appalling). This meant that customers had a hard time finding help, and a long wait getting it, which in turn meant they were (rightfully) impatient or frustrated by the time help did come. Not fair to the customer, but not fair to the bookseller, either, who is likely frazzled, just as frustrated, and has nothing to do with the understaffing at the store. Also, as staff got smaller, recovery (end of the day clean up and re-shelving) took longer, stretching well beyond a shift’s scheduled end almost every night. For the average bookseller, there was no overtime. For many on the merchandising team, all-nighters were not unheard of.
Is this an excuse to treat customers poorly? Absolutely not. Does it justify the above list of snarky revelations? Most certainly.
Working in retail taught me that shoppers can be irrational and inconsiderate, even down right rude and disgusting. But, mostly, working in retail was fun. For every mean, awful customer that was the turd in the cereal bowl of my life, 10 more came along who were fantastically patient or kind or funny or just plain delightful to help. Books are my passion, and helping people discover them was a joy. Recommending them, finding them, hunting down that title-you-couldn’t-quite-remember. It gave me the warm fuzzies. But those handful of turds are the reason I think working a job in retail (or food service) for a year should be a required life experience. I believe that the only reason those turds are such turds is because they’ve never worked those store front lines—it’s hard to treat booksellers, waitresses, or whoever poorly when you’ve been in their shoes.
Empathy, people. Empathy. It’s what separates us from the psychopaths.
So, here is my own Ode to Borders. It’s turning out to be a rambling combination of nostalgia and frustration, but I hope it will at least be articulate and interesting. Besides, as a genuine bibliophile, it’s the least I can do for a fallen friend…and a former employer.
The pin board in the break room at the Columbus Circle Borders displaying customer testimonials in the store's final days
I love Borders. Yes, love. The present tense. I’m not ready to refer to it in the past tense. Even though there are no Borders stores left, I felt odd this past weekend when I signed up for a Barnes & Noble card, and I still haven’t taken my Borders Rewards card out of my wallet. This is silly and futile, I know, but that’s how entrenched this chain is in my psyche and my life.
To begin with, I’m from Michigan, where Borders was born. It was the first bookstore to appear within a 20 minute driving distance of my childhood home—shout out to store 019!—or, at least, it’s the first bookstore I have any memory of going to. In high school I actually aspired to work at that store in Novi, Michigan, not as a career goal but as the kind of summer job I could enjoy (my working life started at a Dairy Queen and moved on to waiting tables, which I hated). After I started college, I applied for a summer job at 019 almost every year until I was finally hired as holiday help in 2006. When I moved to New York three years later, I spent a year working at the Borders in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. Store 592 became my safe place in a strange, vast city, the place where I met my first New Yorker friends, and the place where many of them still worked until a week ago. Even after I started working at Random House, I still found myself in that store because I missed it and the people who worked there.
There is a camaraderie that forms among people working at Borders (and I’m sure at B&N, too). It’s what made working there so much fun, even as we started to feel the beginnings of the company’s collapse and the work got harder, the shifts longer, and the perks smaller. But I don’t think anything I say could be as well-spoken and heartfelt as this post by a friend and former co-worker in which he said:
We each live with our own cast of characters, their closeness to us determined on their level of development (round or flat). It’s not that some people are more interesting than others; it’s that only some are comfortable enough around us to show us who they really are. And it’s when these people step off-stage, their parts finished, that it hurts the most. Whether it’s time or not—and usually, it feels like it’s not—these people have to move on to someone else’s stage to be watched and loved<…>Unlike any other place I’ve ever worked, Borders was full of round characters.
This touched me because it is exactly how I felt when I left Borders for Random House, even though I was leaving it for my dream job and my future. Now, with Borders gone, it seems like that piece of me has vanished, too. When I’m having a tough day at work, or stuck in a lonely funk, I can no longer walk up the street on my lunch break to see all those familiar faces gathered in that familiar place. It’s gone forever, and that breaks my heart.
Gone, also, is another low-key place to go to when you just need to get out. A place to be surrounded by other book lovers. A place to read books and discover them. A place that won’t pressure you to buy a coffee or a mediocre muffin just because you needed somewhere to sit down and kill 20 minutes. Amazon, for all its innovative brilliance, will never, ever be able to do any of these things. The internet is not a place I can go visit when I just want to get out of my apartment but not really go anywhere.
I have a tote bag that I snagged from Word Stock a few years ago. On one side of this tote is the Borders logo. I use it all the time, have carried it to work on numerous occasions, but last week when I got onto the elevator at the end of the day, our editor-in-chief saw the logo and said, “We have got to get you a new bag.” I laughed and shrugged, but said nothing. Because you know what? I don’t want a new bag. I don’t see that Borders logo and think about the liquidation, or the poor business decisions, or the implications of the chain’s collapse on the book industry. I see it and remember the way all the stores somehow had the same distinct book smell, or the fun I had working with such awesome people. I think about that light-headed, unforgettable moment when I first walked into a Borders as a child, wide-eyed and giddy with the possibilities. I think of books and friends. I think of the safe, comforting feeling of a place as familiar to me as home.
So, if you live in New York and you see a girl walking around with a Borders tote bag, chances are it’s me. Chances are I put the Borders side face out on purpose.
Farewell, Borders. Bookworms and manga nerds, movie buffs and comic geeks, writers and authors and agents and editors, we keenly feel your passing. Farewell.