Tuesday, July 19, 2011


So Borders Books and Music has gone belly-up. I bought a travel guide in a Chicago location last spring, but apparently that wasn't enough to save the company. It was the first time I'd been in the store in ages.

I had trouble recognizing Borders when I was there last, but had little difficulty understanding what happened to destroy it. A vast stationary section and huge displays of soft toys and gizmos? Ghastly bland corporate endcap displays with desperately un-hip posters pushing novels which would sell anyway? I hated all that crap, which started in the late ninetees and was brought to Borders by the morons who'd previously wrecked Waldenbooks.

When I joined Borders as a bookseller in 1994 I was given the Mystery section. I knew nothing about the genre, but didn't care. My goal was to take over the literature section and make it my own, and after a few months of shelving F is for Fucksakes I did so. I was able to order multiple copies of whatever I wanted in order to fill displays with books I thought were worth selling, and sell I did. I used to obsessively track the percentage of store totals my section had, and I loved coming in and finding that The Recognitions had again sold out--no other bookstore in town even carried William Gaddis titles! I became a manager and ran the greatest local interest section ever, with an astonishing six tall bays of fiction and history. Borders really gave its staff freedom to push what they found interesting, and that strategy worked.

And then we started getting pre-set lists of what we had to display: front tables and endcap space were sold to publishers who pushed garbage. Our backlist was slashed and we had more face-outs of whatever Steve King or Harry Potter book was most current. Our video section became a joke, and the music store's classical and jazz sections--the premier sections in the entire region--were devestated. The company hired secret shoppers to ensure our displays were accurate and our staff were wearing name badges. Bibelot and B&N opened superstores nearby, and instead of further strengthening what differentiated Borders from the competition, our regional bosses fully commited to emulating them. Immediately our sales plummeted, and I became store manager of a sadly diminished struggling behemoth. After a couple years I went on to other things but maintained a part-time slot at the store to keep my discount before quitting in 2002 for good. The Towson Borders shut its doors and moved up the street to a much less interesting standard retail location, and I became a loyal Amazon convert.

But I'll always think back fondly to my time at Borders. I made many great friends, who turned me on to amazing books, films, and music. I got to share my tastes with a variety of groovy people, and was even sent to Singapore to help open a superstore there. For a while we ran a true destination spot, a vital community center, and it felt good to work there. I was interviewed by local TV stations and radio routinely simply because whenever anyone in Baltimore thought of books or music, they thought of Borders. Every time a celebrity kicked off or there was some scandal, Fox 45 or WMAR or WJZ would drop by for a sound bite. I even ended up in the Sun and the Baltimore Business Journal!

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