This morning, I happened to spot some people woefully emoting on Google+ about the likely liquidation of Borders – the corporate book store that was just a little hipper than Barnes & Noble… before it wasn’t. It should come as a surprise to no one that Borders is having some trouble, but least of all, it comes as a surprise to no one who has worked in one of the quickly vanishing stores anytime in the past ten years.
I happen to be a former Borders employee, and I have feelings about this, as I’m sure most current and former employees do.
I began working at Borders in 2005. I was a college student. My mom had gotten a raise at work, which pushed my FAFSA-calculated EFC (expected family contribution) just out of the range for work study eligibility. So I had to say goodbye to my awesome paid internship at the Safer Foundation and hit the streets to find real work – you know, the type where you aren’t allowed to do your homework in your cubical. Luckily, I happened to know someone who worked in the cafe at the Borders on State and Randolph, smack in the center of the theater district in downtown Chicago, and she was nice enough to recommend me to the HR lady, and within two weeks, I was employed by Borders on State Street, one of the largest and most profitable Borders stores in the country.
From the way I understood it, I had come to the company at a turning point. At that time, there were a lot of people working at my store who had been with the company for years. One of the women I worked with had at one point taken advantage of an exchange program Borders used to have, and was sent to work in London for a year – just because. Another gentleman I worked with had been with the company for over ten years, and had been a “store opener.” He’d spent about three months in Australia, and he spoke highly of those experiences.
But I was told by a lot of these long-timers that things were changing. It used to be a cool place to work, they said. The company used to have this philosophy about their retail workers. Sellers were encouraged to be individuals, because the thought was that customers liked being able to go into a store and find that dude with all of those tattoos and piercings who could tell them anything they wanted to know about Kafka. Hiring was a little more selective, they told me – HR wasn’t just looking for someone to man the cash registers and shelve books, they were looking for people who were genuinely passionate about reading, and I remember a good portion of my interview was devoted to asking me about what types of books I liked, did I consider myself an avid reader, what kind of music and movies was I into?
I realized straight away that they were right – things were changing quickly. Before I was even finished with my training (which only lasted about four days), the woman who had hired me had been shuffled out, and a new general manager had been assigned. Within a few months, layouts of the merchandizing tables began to change. We started to see new, ongoing training procedures that really made me think of that section in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, where she’s talking about her experience as a new hire at WalMart (that section always really stuck with me). And most significant of all, within that first year, at least half of the people that had been my coworkers when I first started – many of whom had been with the company, or even at that exact store, for five or more years – were gone.
During my first week as a Borders employee, I heard all kinds of whispers about how the company was hemorrhaging money, and that it was only a matter of time before the ship really and truly sank. In its desperation to save itself, Borders instituted a sales strategy that it insisted we adhere to during every interaction with every customer. They called it “The Loop,” and to those of us who had been there for a while, it felt disingenuous at best, and ineffectual at worst. Where before, I felt like my best strategy was to share my passion for Margaret Atwood and J. M. Coetzee (I honestly cannot even begin to count how many copies of The Blind Assassin and Disgrace that I sold), I was now expected to focus on “upselling” and was supposed to steer customers toward the stacks at the front of the store. You liked A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? Before, I might have recommended you check out some of the McSweeney’s anthologies (Mountain Man Dance Moves being my favorite among them), but now I’m going to drag you over to this table piled with the latest release from James Patterson – even though I see you’re making a face at me. Doesn’t matter. I’ve got a supervisor with a clipboard watching me from behind that counter over there, and if I don’t do this at least 70% of the time, I’m not eligible for a raise during my next review.
If you can’t tell, I’m kind of bitter about my time there. My coworkers at both of the stores I worked in were amazing, but I knew what it was like – albeit briefly – to be a Borders bookseller when it was still a cool job. Once it really started feeling like a corporation, it wasn’t fun anymore. I’m not going to lie to you – a part of me is thinking, it serves you right, Borders, for changing the nature of the bookseller and trying to turn us all into a monolithic force of formulaic salespeople. And then the other part of me feels terrible about that, because if Borders were liquidated, 11,000 people would be out of work (according to the WSJ) – most of them sellers, and I’ll tell you again and again – some of the smartest, most interesting and talented people I’ve ever met I met through Borders.
I can also tell you from my experience as a former Borders employee and a current Kindle-enthusiast that I have almost zero reason to go into a bookstore anymore. For a while, I actively avoided it, because I didn’t want to patronize Borders out of bitterness, I could never get used to the way Barnes & Noble shelves things, and because, let’s face it, there just aren’t that many independent bookstores left. Now I, like many others, have eschewed the print book in favor of the ebook. But because I don’t go into bookstores anymore, I have to be honest – I feel disconnected. Where before, I felt like I was always in the know of what was new, what was popular, and even what wasn’t (you can’t help but stop and read blurbs for a minute while you’re shelving – it’s just impossible), I now feel sometimes like I’m just not sure what I should be reading. How?! Before, I always had a backlog of ten or so novels – just novels! – that I was planning on reading.
The fact of the matter is that Amazon (and other ebookstores) hasn’t replicated the bookstore experience. While I was at Borders, I never fully appreciated the effectiveness of the planograms we used to build displays. And where’s your tattooed Kafka expert when you’re browsing for books online?
Since the physical bookstore seems to be going the way of the dinosaurs, one of the oft-overlooked side-effects is that an entire class of worker – the bookseller – is going to disappear. I suppose that’s what I lament most about my time at Borders. I was there as the company slowly phased out the essence of the bookseller, whittling hir responsibilities down to a set of tasks to accomplish, rather than a fluid building of relationships with other readers and consumers of media. I have to wonder if, during my three years there, I actually inspired someone to read something. Did anyone actually open the copy of The Blind Assassin that I sold hir? Did I have an effect on anyone’s literary life, or am I being too hopeful about the impact I actually had? Once booksellers are a thing of the past, will something change, or will I have to admit to myself that I was a retail worker – like any other retail worker? Maybe it was just the magic of the books that made me feel I was special – and I know that books will remain magical, regardless of whether they’re on pages or microchips, and regardless of who peddles them.