Posted by: dougery | February 16, 2011

This Week in See You in Hell: Borders (R)

Earlier this week the once mega-bookstore chain Borders filed for bankruptcy. All I have to say about this is boo effing hoo.

I can think of no more appropriate an ending to so idiotic a corporate story. Yes they are only closing 200 stores. They aren’t folding up all the tents. But they’ve pretty much thrown up the white flag of ‘we done f@cked up!’ and the days when they battled independent bookstores everywhere and Barnes and Noble and Amazon (although did they ever really even consider Amazon an opponent, you have to wonder?) are gone.

Confession time. I worked for Borders for like a day and a half. I took a part time shift there while I was interning at an architecture firm in Buffalo. A few extra bucks and I would (conceivably) get to be around books a few more hours each week. There was no other bookstore within driving distance. But the funny thing was my immediate impression of working at Borders left me with the obvious if not stupefying conclusion that they really didn’t care about books. At all. The only dude there who actually gave a shit about his job worked in the music department. Guy knew a ton about classical. Oh, and the barista girls. They were slinging shot after shot of espresso to impatient suburbanites and did it with a smile.

Everyone who worked the rest of the floor? Miserable.

Maybe they once loved books, but whoever was running the show at corporate at the time was doing a bang-up job of crushing everyone’s glee over the printed word. We were there to move product. Period. My job began and ended at the registers. I was explicitly instructed on what to say to every customer. I had to mention the shitty sidelines (retail code for all that worthless crap that clogs up the area immediately around the check-out desks) and any club they were currently featuring. I was actually told not to discuss individual book interests with a customer because often times I would be alone and this would cause unnecessary waiting for other folks in line.

I was given a name-tag to personalize myself. It was a laminated 3 x 5 card with a giant Borders logo on both sides and my name in small letters on just the front. I took it home and immediately corrected the problem as I was full of idealistic wanna-be punk ethos at the time. I cut out a photo of Joe Strummer from a zine and slipped him to face out inside the lamination, careful to cut a hole around the Borders logo lest I get reprimanded. I was yelled at anyways but the whole affair was so forced I got the impression my boss was only doing it because his boss had told him to and that he (my boss) actually thought it was kind of cool. So I kept it. Still have it somewhere.

My stint at Borders ended up providing me with exactly one good thing. It gave me ‘bookstore experience’ which helped me land a job at 57th Street a few years later. My foot in the Co-Op’s door and the beginning of the wonderful time I spent working there. You know, where folks actually love books. And they let you talk about them with the customers, actually encourage them to check something they might not have heard of out. I miss those bookstores dearly but again, the experience I gained there gave me the resume material necessary to get my first part time gig at a honest to goodness publisher. One that makes books I can stand behind.

And now I’ve (sort of) come full circle. Because from this vantage point, Borders tanking isn’t a good thing. Them not being able to pay their bills hurts us, hurts all publishers, at a time when those who love books so much they have gone into the profession of making them simply do not have the skin left on their teeth to get by. Borders going down is terrible news, technically.

But not so fast. This isn’t exactly so. This is because folks who like books are pretty awesome. And they will find the books they love no matter how many traditional avenues close. If this bankruptcy causes just one dude to walk into Myopic or the Book Cellar or the Strand or my dear 57th St then all will be well.

Goodbye Borders. I will not miss you when you’re gone.

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Responses

  1. and of course, I do very much care for all of the employees who will lose their jobs over the mind-numbingly poor decisions of their overlords because of these actions. I know there are a lot of you out there who love books as much as I do.

  2. I have to admit, I’m actually sad about the Borders on Michigan Ave closing, just because it was nice to pop in there after work some days. And it was huge. A commercial cathedral of books. 57th Street remains my favorite book store in Chicago. I love the “Hogwarts Chamber of Secrets” vibe of the Co-op, too, and the “Library of the House of Usher” vibe of Myopic, but 57th St. has that rambling, exploratory feeling, plus you can actually find a specific book you’re looking for in there. You’ll never find a specific book in Myopic, but then, that’s not the point. The point of Myopic is discovery.

    And that’s ultimately, I think, why Borders failed. They tried to sell books the way Best Buy sells Blu Ray players. But a Best Buy customer and a bookstore customer are two different animals, even when they’re the same person. You don’t go to a bookstore to get the best deal. You go to browse, to wander, to pull a book down and take a sip. That’s what the best book stores get right (I think even B&N does this fairly well) and why even book lovers don’t love libraries, with their sterile air and plastic covered books like so many grandmother’s couches. There’s a warmth to book browsing and buying that no other art form allows. A comfort. The wonderful paradox of sitting in a big, comfy leather chair next to a fire, and then opening up a Bolano book and having your brain blown out.

  3. interesting thoughts. i feel bad not being more disturbed as a book-lover, but mostly i’m just frustrated by the prospect of all these huge empty buildings left like unused churches throughout the city.


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