Thursday, January 28, 2010

I remember Borders

I like my local Borders. The coffee is better than it is at Dunkin Donuts, even though it's hard to pass up that crazy Dunkin's special, four pounds for $19.99. The muffins and cookies are pretty stale, though. I liked it better in the old days when you could get a soup and sandwich here, just like in the school cafeteria, even if I did find a fingernail in the tomato bisque once. The two staff members I see here all the time are real nice, despite being big and frazzled, hustling up and down the aisles looking for books, talking back and forth through their headset mics like air traffic controllers, hauling boxes around, moving furniture, looking up titles on the computer, even ringing up a sale once in a while. The heavy set one is always carrying a mop, I think she's the manager. I hope the home office gives her more payroll hours so she and her assistant can go home once in a while. I get the feeling these poor women are trapped.

Ever since they took out all those fixtures in the middle of the store and got rid of the books last fall, there's been plenty of room to stretch out. On any given day, you'll find three or four unemployed guys laying on the floor, a couple dozing, a couple checking out some of the motorcycle magazines. One slobbering dude with a seeming penchant for children’s picture books keeps getting up to go to the men's room, stays in there for twenty, thirty seconds, then comes wobbling back out to take up his position on the floor again. He does this every six, seven minutes for hours on end. My friend Sammy thinks this guy is a Borders district manager gone AWOL. Could be.

I only wish Borders would do something about the worn carpet tile back there -- the duct tape they use to hide the fraying seams looks like shite and sticks to your trousers if you lie on it too long. There's also been a lot of spillage in that area, leaving a funky smell that’s impossible to get out. The kid's section in the left rear of the big box is still nicely merchandised and well shopped. You see moms with strollers back there during the day and pre-teens after school browsing and giggling amid the stacks. They go for the manga. Other areas of the store haven't fared as well. Take the Art and Photography section which lately consists of a handful of grimy “technique” books that no longer stand up straight on the shelf, their dust-jackets torn, edges bent, and spines broken. The poor shopworn things are begging to be thrown out.

The shelves in the Literature section are so tightly packed you can’t extricate a single volume. I guess they haven’t had the time to pull returns in a while. Everywhere you look you’ll see the same title in both hardcover and paperback editions, massive quantities spined out next to each other. I struggled to pluck an old copy of Stanley Elkin’s
The Franchiser out of its row, blew off the dust, and riffled the pages. A friend of a friend had recommended it to me last year, saying that I shared Elkin’s sensibility. Hah. In going through it, I found that some joker had carefully cut out pages 42 – 58. I tried to squeeze the damaged book back into its slot on the shelf but the damn thing wouldn’t fit. So I just laid it on the floor next to half a dozen other books that couldn’t be re-shelved. These days at my Borders, there are a lot of little such piles all over the store. It’s hard to see them all, since only about half of the overhead florescent lights work. The rest just sizzle and flicker.

Some people think Borders is going out of business because of the empty shelves, lack of help, and dingy interiors. Talk like that makes me sad. Back in the early 1990s, when I used to go out to Ann Arbor regularly to sell Borders, their offices were filled with gifted book people, buyers with an encyclopedic knowledge of their subjects, scruffy grad school types carrying on the legacy of the Borders brothers, Tom and Louis, and Joe Gable, the legendary manager of their flagship store and world-class crank. God, they were a pain in the neck — opinionated, unfashionable, harboring a general distrust of big New York publishers — but I loved them no end. After all, I too was a misfit who’d found shelter in the book business, happy to be amongst my own kind, believing, as they did, that selling books was a noble profession.

It took a long succession of blowhards, incompetents, money-grubbers, and dolts to chase those good people away and turn the company into just another Big Dumb Retailer, fighting for its Big Dumb Retailing life. I like my local Borders because I remember it the way it was, not the way it is now. I want to bring these two put-upon women who are here all the time fresh cookies and a smile, just to let them know that someone cares and knows what they’re going through. I figure I better do it soon, before someone puts the store out of its misery and closes it for good.


  1. Dear PK,

    Thanks for writing this. I, too, miss what Borders was. Their training video used to say it was "the people" that made Borders a special place to work. Then the people started to leave or were driven out or ignored. Let's try to remember the good times and the good books.

  2. Oh my. Just 15 years ago I was able to break even touring the country as an indie singer/songwriter because of the "Borders Gig:" $100 cash for a two hour performance in the cafe plus I could sell my own CDs for full price. Ann Arbor was my hometown in the 70s and 80s. The Mothership store on Liberty used to be a Jacobson's department store until that moved to the mall. My first job as a single mom was Christmas help at Jacobson's. The evening when I did my Borders gig in Ann Arbor with an audience of old friends and family was eerie in the extreme. Like time travel. Little did I know how truly eerie it would get.