I first set foot in Borders some time back in the mid-90s. One had just opened less than 20 minutes from us, and it was the first “big” bookstore I’d ever seen. Until then, the only bookstores I’d ever visited were the tiny and then-long closed B. Dalton in the nearby derelict mall (where I bought “Garfield” books as a kid), and a quaint, independent store on the other side of town that carried little I was interested in. Borders, on the other hand, was like a playground for a kid like me who was interested in books, music and periodicals. I wouldn’t say that I was a “bookworm” so much as a little media junkie who couldn’t get his fix anymore at the tiny town library. I loved combing through the CDs and magazines, and being the little consumerist I was, I burned through my allowances and earliest paychecks there at an alarming rate. But even if I wasn’t buying anything, Borders was still a place that I somehow ended up at when I didn’t have anything better to do. Yes, I was/am that much of a huge nerd.
Years later, shortly after college I moved in with a roommate and began the process of job hunting. Go figure, there wasn’t much demand for an unmotivated media studies major with no experience, so after several months, my priorities shifted from finding the ideal entry-level position to just landing any job at all. Once again, I found myself at Borders, this time filling out a job application, one that (gasp!) actually landed me an interview. It turned out that they liked my library experience and were looking for holiday help. What began as a short-term holiday employment eventually turned into a two and a half year gig before I finally resigned. In between I had some of the best and worst work experiences of my life.
After a good six months of ringing up customers at the register, I was “promoted” to working at the cafe. I never thought I’d be serving lattes to people after graduation, but there I was, ringing up stale baked goods and artfully squirting chocolate checkerboard-patterns onto whipped cream-topped mochas. This was (at times) relaxingly predictable work, that is, during weekday afternoons. Weekends brought seemingly endless queues of customers, which packed the cafe with stacks of books, almost all of which would be left behind for us to pick up and deliver to the restock shelf at customer service. We were commonly understaffed, so what should have been a mellow job was often pretty stressful. In hindsight, I look back on all the times that I let it stress me out and wonder just what my problem was. Out of plastic spoons? Stroller moms with crying kids in the cafe? Customers dumping hot coffee out in the garbage can? None of it really mattered, and I should have just let it all slide, but instead I often let it agitate me to an embarrassing degree. If I took anything away from this time, it was that I learned a lot about myself and my abilities to deal with stress.
The only thing that got me through all the headaches of the job were all the fantastic people I met on the job. Through my coworkers, I was able to experience a kind of “second college,” being able to hang out with cool people my own age, only this time without all the religious social hangups that perpetually hampered my college relationships. After work, we’d congregate outside the store doors and smoke cigarettes before heading off to a bar for a few drinks. I went to parties and concerts with my newfound friends and had a blast. Who knew that making friends was this easy? Finally, I had people to hang out with outside of work, who I could enjoy a few drinks with without being silently judged.
Bookstores naturally draw an eccentric mix of people; my coworkers included a handful of anime geeks, a music teacher, art students, a few stoner-types and a fair share of fellow liberal-minded people like myself. I felt that I fit in really well. For the first time at a job, I felt comfortable. This was good, right? Maybe not when you’re just getting by at a few quarters over the minimum wage. I regularly struggled with money during my whole time at Borders, but after a year or so of working with such cool people in such a relaxed atmosphere (er, for the most part), I had a hard time imagining myself working anywhere else.
After a year or so at the cafe, I was offered a position working in the music/DVD section. This was the big break I’d been waiting for. It wasn’t quite the proper “music store” job that I’d always wanted, but it was close enough. Stocking and rearranging CDs on the shelves, sorting out the mess that was the DVD section… probably sounds like a pain in the butt to most “normal” people, but hey, if I’m going to be set to mindless tasks then it might as well be ones that come natural to me. My coworkers and I had the entire upstairs of the store to ourselves, and put on whatever music we liked. Gorillaz, Daft Punk, David Bowie, Bjork, Talking Heads… usually anything but the CDs that corporate mandated us to be playing every day.
I can remember some of the first times that I ever visited Borders, scanning through the CD sections, and finding more music than I’d ever seen in one place ever before: the entire Sonic Youth catalog, multiple albums by Autechre, Throbbing Gristle, Aphex Twin, Wire, Plastikman, Merzbow (!), Swans, Silver Apples, Suicide… by the time I working in the music department, this once-rich selection (which about half of my CD collection was purchased from) had been cut in half with almost all the hard-to-find artists completely purged from the inventory, and the worst was still to come. Every month meant a new RPL, in which we’d pull all of the interesting albums we were actually still carrying off the shelf to be sent back to the distributor. Soon we were down to only the essentials, with the monthly listening-station titles being the only source of interesting titles that weren’t Celtic Woman or post-mortem Ray Charles duets. This made my job as a music seller somewhat difficult. Whenever the opportunity arose to actually recommend a title to an interested customer, chances were that it was one that we no longer carried. Of course, we could always order it, which would usually prompt the same customer reaction every time: “If I wanted to order it, I would just go to Amazon!”
There lied the problem that Borders was unable or simply unwilling to deal with. Customers were turning to the Internet for their book, music, and DVD needs, which provided a greater selection at a lower price that we simply couldn’t compete with. Our closest competitor, Barnes and Noble, had been selling books online since 1997. Maybe in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of way, Borders contracted Amazon.com to handle its online orders for most of the 00’s. I have no idea whether Borders reaped the full profit from such sales or just a small commission. Either way, it helped drive customers out of stores and onto their home computers, where they found a more comfortable and easier shopping experience. The new Borders website, launched in 2008, was and still is a sad imitation of its competitors’ sites, its most unique features being the slow-loading (now defunct?) “magic shelf” and embarrassingly-tiny search results which have somehow managed to diminish over time. As of 2005 and 2006, though, things were still looking up for the company, as it kept expanding and working to improve its existing stores.
Store remodeling eventually brought the religion and manga sections upstairs to us, which meant bringing the manga kids upstairs with it. Our manga section was always over-packed and strewn with discarded food wrappings and torn shrinkwrap removed from mature titles. I wish I could say that this corner of the store was a hangout for otaku teens. Rather, it was always packed with ravenous ten year-olds whose parents likely abandoned them for a few hours’ worth of shopping across the street at the mall. Still, I enjoyed trying to keep this section straight, as well as the anime DVDs. But there’s only so many 4-episode Inuyasha DVDs (for a low, low price of $24.99!) that you can fit on a handful of shelves, so it was often a struggle to pack everything in. As time went on, I noticed that to be the case throughout the DVD section, as well as most of the books we held upstairs. I wouldn’t say that people weren’t buying stuff like they used to, but they definitely weren’t buying it at Borders anymore.
During the last few months of my time at Borders, I experienced one financial crisis after another, and the once-close web of friends that I enjoyed was splintering apart due to resignations and in-store drama in which once-friendly coworkers grew embittered and succumbed to workplace gossip and backstabbing. Every other new hire seemed to possess once psychopathic quality or another; we hired a wise-ass slacker who’d sit on the countertop at the information desk and blare awful pop-punk music at full volume throughout the entire upper floor, which caused management to crack down on our entire department with a new set of strict rules. Then there was the aspiring MMA fighter who bragged about beating his wife and taking her wedding ring, and the new manager who was fired and arrested for stealing a TV. But I guess it’s hard not to get nostalgic for a time when any loser off the street could walk into a store and get a job, a general state of affairs that it looks like we’ll never see again.
I eventually reached a point where I realized that my life was going nowhere. I put in my two-week notice in the middle of a huge remodeling job, one which covered every square inch of the store in dust and marked the final transition of the chain from a simple bookstore into a bookstore/games/nicknacks/wrapping paper shoppe. My final week was spent working overnight shifts, moving stock from one section to another, and nearly losing my mind from lack of sleep. On my last night I reorganized an entire wall full of headphones, CD cases, and accessories, mostly by myself, while my coworker blasted My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult on the overhead speakers. I said my goodbyes to a handful of people, packed up my belongings from my locker and walked out the door, wondering if I would ever set foot in the store again. It’s been about five years now and I still haven’t.
I’ve kept a close eye on the slow demise of the chain, from its interoffice drama to its decade-late scramble to finally establish itself online. Its desperate reliance on “make” titles (see how desperately they’re pushing the “Millennium Trilogy” books these days and you’ll get an idea of how much they needed regular hits like Harry Potter just to stay afloat) and sideline items began to push its wider selection towards the margins of its business. Nothing’s taken a hit quite like the CD and DVD stock, which became a liability for the chain in recent years. Of course, that’s just the nature of business in the digital age, but unfortunately Borders didn’t have the luxury of treating such items as loss leaders like Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Everything they sell has been devalued by the big box stores, iTunes, and Amazon.
It’s such a sad situation for the employees of the chain who truly loved their jobs and took them seriously, even as they were treated like wage slaves and likely making less than your average Taco Bell employee. But the writing’s been on the wall for months, maybe even years, hopefully long enough for workers to begin preparing for life after Borders. Since leaving, I’ve found a better-paying job that I can actually support myself with, but I still get wistful when I think about all the carefree time I spent working there. Days could be hectic and annoying, but were just as often a breezy blur that I remember most for the friends that I made and the good times that we had. It was more than just a job. It was the center of a mellow lifestyle that seems to have passed for me, and after this week’s news, is likely passing away for thousands of others, too. Hopefully the remaining Borders stores can ride out the crisis and stay open for years, but even if they do, the fin de siècle for the industry is definitely upon us.