Monday, August 22, 2011

I Come to Bury Caesar...

Before we get into the thrust of the post I want to apologize for taking the last couple of weeks off. I have been packing and moving myself across the country. I'm back on the west coast, living in a reverse Three's Company situation. I'm sure the trials of living with two guys will come up later, or possibly spin off into a new blog called What is That Smell?. I'm still a little stressed and out of sorts, but I'm ready to hop back into the world of BookWench.  And now back to our regularly scheduled program...

As anyone who's looked at any sort of book/business news in the past few months well knows Borders Books filed for bankruptcy and is now in the process of shutting down their hundreds of stores across the country. It's caused a lot of mixed emotions for me, as I worked for that company through college and for many, many years afterward. I worked at three of their stores, in three different cities, and it played a significant part in my adult life. And, as awful and annoying as most of the stories I tell from those stores are, I am sad to see it all come to an end.

I am not, however, surprised. As I got higher up in the management echelons of the company the cracks in the logic and flaws in the plan became larger and clearer. It's never a good sign for a business when one of their employees with a Theatre degree can point out their poor fiscal decisions. (Seriously, I haven't taken a class that involved math since my senior year of high school, and I could see that the numbers were not adding up in a positive way.) We all knew the ship was sinking, it was only a matter of when the final wave would take it under, and honestly, it lasted much longer than any of us really expected it to.

As with any company I saw a lot of things go wrong (most of which have/will appear on this blog.) I worked for some truly terrible managers, saw some really bad decisions being made, and saw the company drift away from the love of unique books and intelligent staff that had made them a success in the first place. But despite all of that, it had moments of being a great place to work.

I made so many amazing friends at those stores, even dated a few, and now live with two more. So I owe Borders a debt of gratitude for that alone. I don't think the company ever learned how valuable an asset they had on their sales floor. Every store I worked at had a really unique, weird, crazy staff that loved books. And between the lot of us you could usually find one staff member who had an insane amount of devotion and knowledge for a specific section of the store making for a better resource than Amazon's algorithms could ever hope to be. I'm not saying every staff member in every store was brilliant or patient or hard-working, but a significant number of us were, and the shift away from hiring smart people to hiring anyone really hurt them. And it was a clear shift. You could almost pinpoint the date they did away with asking book questions during the interview process. Occasionally a good one would slip through, but the awesome quirky book nerds were slowly replaced with generic retail drones.

And those people managed to infiltrate the corporate end as well. Borders was founded on this weird combination of large chain and indy bookstore ideas. They prided themselves on being quirky, and having a move varied and interesting stock than their major competitors. And it was awesome. The ease of a large store, but one that carried that weird Bukowski book, or had an extensive philosophy section. But when the plague of generic took over, and someone decided to dismiss everything that made Borders unique, it became just another place to drink coffee and pick up the latest James Patterson novel. Instead of taking pride in offering over 100,000 different titles in each store, the goal became to pack in as many copies of the 100 most popular titles. And at that point, why bother? If I can't tell the difference between one chain and another, why would I go out of my way to remain a loyal customer? There's a reason we have so many fast-food burger places existing together, and it's because I can't get McDonald's fries at Wendy's, and I can't get a Whopper at Sonic. Instead Borders took the path most travelled by, and it unfortunately led them to their demise.

I feel fortunate to have spent a few of the better years there. I learned so much, and I met such amazing people. As I sat in my new living room last night and looked at the three amazing people there with me I was saddened by the thought that the place that brought us all together didn't exist any more. And it's sad that the world lost a place to go and buy actual books. So I felt compelled to write this eulogy of sorts, and say goodbye to the company that led me to the place of writing this blog.

As always, I encourage everyone to support their local, three-dimensional bookstores. Find an awesome independent bookstore and go and enjoy a place where knowledge is readily available for purchase, and where the quirky weirdos with random arts, history, and English degrees go to find work and create a unique collective of ideas. Otherwise, we'll just be out on the streets making trouble, and the books will sit unread, and the Idiocracy will creep ever closer..
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. 
- Haruki Murakami


  1. I completely agree with what you have said. One of the reasons I used to go to Border's was the eclectic selection in their music section. I found several artists there that I couldn't find at Best Buy or Wal-Mart. I also discovered a few artists at their listening stations that I would have never heard on the radio. But once they went mainstream, why would I continue to pay full (or near full) price at Border's for the exact same music I could find for 10-20% less at the aforementioned big stores? Even near the end, when they were trying to pull themselves out of the pit, they were trying like mad to be smaller versions of Wal-Mart. (Notice I didn't say Barnes & Noble who still do, at least, carry odd titles.) They were going to get rid of all but the top 25 titles in DVDs and CDs. Well why would I drive past 3 Wal-Marts to get the same titles for more money? It boggles the mind why a company would destroy a formula that seemed to be working for them...

  2. The biggest sign that the end was coming was the addition of kiosk machines. Corporate really thought they could replace knowledgeable staff members with computers and the customer could find the books for themselves. What they never realized was that a computer couldn't take the keywords "red", "fried", and "potatoes" and know that the person actually wanted "Fried Green Tomatoes" or allow them to find Sophocles without the correct spelling.

    The worst idea was to take stores that were designed to be unique, to be reflections of their communities, and make them cookie-cutter and bland. Customers used to love visiting many locations to see how different each store would be. Instead corporate again went with a way to cut staff. If every store had the same layout, then an actual person wasn't needed. It all comes down to greed and the inability to see past the next quarter's profits.