Books Without Borders

My Life at the World's Dumbest Bookstore Chain

Books Without Borders

Kelly O

NEARLY 11,000 The number of booksellers losing their jobs.

It's embarrassing now, but on the day that I was hired to work at Boston's flagship Borders store in 1996, I was so happy that I danced around my apartment. After dropping out of college, I had worked a succession of crappy jobs: mall Easter Bunny, stock boy at Sears and Kmart and Walmart, a brief and nearly fatal stint as a landscaper. A job at Borders seemed to be a step, at long last, toward my ultimate goal of writing for a living. At least I would be working with books. And the scruffy Borders employees, in their jeans and band T-shirts, felt a lot closer to my ideal urban intellectuals than the stuffy Barnes & Noble employees with their oppressive dress code and lame vests.

The fact that Borders offered me a full-time job, which allowed me to quit two part-time jobs (at a Staples and a Stop & Shop) and offered health insurance (that promised to help pay for my impending wisdom tooth extraction), was a pretty big deal, too.

For better and for worse, Borders was my college experience. I behaved badly—fucked, drank, and did drugs with everyone I could. My fellow employees snuck me into bars when I was underage, and then cheered when, during my 21st birthday party, I wound up facedown in the gutter sobbing about how my heart had been ripped in two by an ex-fiancée. I was not alone in my bad behavior: Every week, different employees were hooking up, having affairs, breaking up, recoupling, playing drinking games that involved comically large hunting knives, getting in fights, getting pregnant, and showing up drunk for work.

In the beginning, the store felt like a tight-knit family. As time went on, we became a confederation of hedonists with little regard for one another's feelings. At one Christmas party that I didn't attend, a new female employee reportedly gave blowjobs to anybody who wanted one. (Later, at least a couple of men who stood in line for the newbie's ministrations complained about picking up an STD.) Suddenly, the parties weren't as fun anymore. One employee hanged himself. Another dropped dead of a heart attack on the sales floor; the story I heard is that he slumped over in the DVD section on the overnight replenishment shift and wasn't discovered until the store opened for business the next morning. (Turns out, that story was exaggerated—his body was actually found about five minutes after he died.)

But it wasn't all an endless cycle of party and hangover. The 20 percent discount—plus an employee credit account that went up to $300, with the store paying off $20 of that debt a month—allowed me to explore books I'd never heard of. It's hard to remember now, but when Borders began proliferating in suburban parking lots around the country, they had a truly excellent selection curated, at least in part, by each store's employees. I bought my first title from countercultural Washington press Feral House—Apocalypse Culture—at the brand-new Borders at the Maine Mall when I was a teenager, and it still ranks as one of my most mind-blowing reading experiences. I read my first David Foster Wallace and Matt Ruff books while working at Borders; I explored the lesser-known works of Twain and Melville and Dickens and St. Vincent Millay. I learned who Edward Abbey and Noam Chomsky and Kathy Acker were. I discovered young writers like Banana Yoshimoto and Colson Whitehead and Chuck Palahniuk and Haruki Murakami. Thanks to my coworkers in the music department, which was just as far-reaching as the book department, I learned to love Miles Davis and Glenn Gould and an obscure punk band from way out west called Sleater-Kinney.

At the time, independent bookstores were blaming Borders for a spate of mom-and-pop bookstore closures around the country. I'll never forget the employee at Bookland in Maine who coldly accused me of single-handedly destroying her small chain when I admitted who my employer was, even as I was buying $50 worth of books from her. Of course, the accusations had truth to them—small bookstores simply couldn't compete with the deep discounts the chains offered—but for what it's worth, every employee who worked at Borders, at least when I first joined the company, adored literature. We were not automatons out to assassinate local business. We wanted to work with the cultural artifacts that were the most important things in our lives, the things that made us who we were. Not all of us could find work at independent bookstores, so we did the next best thing: We went to work for a company that seemingly cared about quality literature and regional reading tastes, and gave its employees a small-but-fair wage for full-time bookselling careers, with excellent benefits. It sure didn't feel like selling out.

Until suddenly, one day, it did feel like selling out. Because it was. Our displays were bought and paid for by publishers; where we used to present books that we loved and wanted to champion, now mediocre crap was piled on every flat surface. The front of the store, with all the kitchen magnets and board games and junk you don't need took over large chunks of the expansive magazine and local-interest sections. Orders came from the corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor every Sunday to change out the displays. One time I had to take down some of the store's most exciting up-and-coming fiction titles (including a newly published book that was gathering word-of-mouth buzz, thanks to our booksellers, called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) to put up a wall of Clash CDs. One month, for some reason, the cafe sold Ernest Hemingway–branded chai.

A tiny, mean ferret of a man became our store manager, and he hired a murderer's row of cronies from the long line of troubled Borders stores he had tamed into conformity in the past. (He was quickly promoted to district manager and clearly had ambitions to become a mover and shaker in the corporation; I just Googled him to discover he's now a corporate executive at a small dollar-store chain.) It became a battle between the management (who would push Ann Arbor's increasingly insulting edicts on us, like employees having their bags checked at the end of shifts by supervisors as though we were all thieves) and the increasingly bitter ground-level employees, who would grumble and moan but go along with their demands every time.

Idiots spread throughout the company, taking control of stores, recruiting from non-book retail backgrounds, doing everything they legally could to stunt attempts at unionization, and encouraging efficiency above all else. The diversity of the titles in stock dwindled as ever-larger shipments of diet books and lawyer thrillers arrived on Ann Arbor's orders. New employees didn't care about books and weren't particularly curious. The store didn't resemble the interests of our staff or customers anymore; our shelves represented the money that publishers were willing to shell out for real estate. Book lovers stopped buying from us; slithering, pre-offended armies of bargain hunters became our clientele.

Finally, I decided to leave Boston for Seattle, and to extinguish any possibility of applying for a transfer to the Seattle Borders branch, I disseminated among staff and customers a zine I wrote claiming that Borders was a husk of what it had been, that greed had destroyed what was a profitable and culturally useful business. I predicted that Borders wouldn't exist in 10 years.

I was wrong. It would take 11 years for Borders to go bankrupt and liquidate.

Turns out, at the same time ground-level booksellers like me were railing against Ann Arbor's dumb decisions, employees at the corporate offices in Ann Arbor were railing against dumb decisions, too. Susan—she requested I not use her real name to preserve her relationships with former coworkers—was an executive at the Ann Arbor headquarters at the same time that I was selling books in Boston.

It came as a relief, even after more than a decade, to hear that her disappointment in the company mirrored my own. Susan started with Borders as a bookseller and quickly rose through the ranks of the company, which was expanding at a frantic pace. The pay was bad—"working really hard for not a lot of money was the thing I liked the least" about the job, she says, flatly—but she loved working with books and the sort of people who love books.

Ann Arbor put a lot of time and money into thwarting attempts to unionize stores. Susan helped with that cause, too, though now she isn't quite sure why. "I'm very pro-union," she says. Nevertheless, she stayed, despite her family making fun of her for working in direct opposition to her morals.

For Susan, the problem really started near the end of Robert DiRomualdo's tenure. The Borders Chairman and temporary CEO, a former president of Hickory Farms, drove Borders to tremendous profits for a chain of bookstores. The industry has always been a small-margin business on the retail end, but at the height of DiRomualdo's leadership, Borders stock ran as high as $44.88 a share; in 1999, the company earned $100 million.

But DiRomualdo was uninterested in building a web presence for Borders, Susan says: "I think there were many, many people who had serious concerns about Borders leaders' decision around the internet." Executives in charge "didn't want to put the money into Borders.com. Bob DiRomualdo believed that there was not a way to make money on the internet at that time. I remember at the time thinking that it was a mistake."

In 2001, Borders would go on to partner with Amazon.com, allowing the online book retailer to handle their internet sales for them, if you can believe it. There's a photo of Jeff Bezos and then-Borders president and CEO Greg Josefowicz shaking hands to celebrate the partnership. Josefowicz has weatherman hair and a broad smile, and he's beaming past the camera with the cocksure giddiness of a guy who thinks he just got rid of all his problems because he sold his dumb old cow for a handful of really cool magic beans. But when you pull your eyes away from Josefowicz's superheroic chin, you notice that Jeff Bezos is smiling directly into the camera with keen shark eyes. His smile is more relaxed, a little more candid than Josefowicz's photo-op-ready grin. It's the face of someone who's thinking, I finally got you, you son of a bitch.

It's a photograph of the exact second that Borders died.

While Borders was trying to avoid paying any attention to their website, they were expanding internationally—a series of ill-fitting launches in the UK, Australia, and Singapore. According to Susan, a lot of employees at Ann Arbor were against the international expansion, instead wanting to shore up the company's internet presence and prepare for the future. This is the crossroads moment, she says, and the ensuing decline of the company has caused her to reflect on what she could have done differently. "I think the writing was on the wall by then. I went back to a lot of those conversations, thinking about how I used to leave those meetings thinking that this is not the smartest thing to do. And I was never the smartest person in the room," she says. Then she pauses and laughs. "Or maybe I was."

Wall Street loved the flash and glitz of Borders' international expansion, and it paid out well in the short term. Mark Veverka of the San Francisco Chronicle noted in July 1998 that DiRomualdo, who opted to be paid solely in stock, sold 288,850 shares just as Borders unveiled its first failure of a website. That year, Veverka writes, DiRomualdo and five other executives cashed out "1.1 million shares between April 3 to June 1 at prices as high as $34." DiRomualdo finally left Borders in 2002. He made millions by selling Borders stock that would be worthless in less than a decade. He sits on the World Retail Congress's World Retail Hall of Fame.

And now nearly 11,000 booksellers are losing their jobs. The last Borders is expected to close in September.

On Friday, July 22, the day Borders stores nationwide entered the liquidation process, I met with Amanda, a Seattle-area Borders employee who similarly requested her real name not be used for fear that she would be fired and lose access to unemployment benefits. (Liquidators told the booksellers not to talk to the media.) Amanda has been with the company for about a year, and the first day of liquidation was an exhausting experience for her. She says her store topped $50,000 in sales—an average day at the store had been somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000 to $12,000. As many as 50 customers—none of whom she had ever seen before—were lined up outside before the store opened for the privilege of trashing the place.

Up until a week before the announcement that Borders was closing, Amanda says management was "telling us to push the Borders Plus cards," an extension of the Borders Rewards loyalty program that charged customers $20 a year for a promise of 10 percent off most everything in the store. (Over the last decade, Borders employees were held to strict quotas regarding Borders Rewards and Borders Rewards Plus cards; if a bookseller was heard not offering a Borders Rewards card to a customer at the register, that would be grounds for a warning or even termination.) Amanda says booksellers were told to tell wary customers that Borders would at least be around through Christmas, so they would be able to make that initial Plus charge back in savings before then. She feels guilty for getting those extra $20 out of customers in what amounts to a nonrefundable junk-bond scam. She says she wants Borders Plus buyers to know that booksellers weren't trying to rip them off and that representatives from Ann Arbor "kept telling us that we were definitely good for another year."

When I ask Amanda when her coworkers think the company started really going downhill, she says they generally agree that things got really bad two years ago. That was the point when "they didn't care about hand-selling books anymore," she says. For the last few months, morale has been terrible. Ann Arbor wasn't telling anyone what was going on, so employees would just read news reports and try to figure out what it all meant. Once they heard on July 18 that closures were definite, the mood moved from solemn to "manic." She says, "We just started playing games and having fun. We stopped obeying the dress code and started doing whatever."

On the day that the liquidation started, "everyone was a little stressed-out and frustrated by the very rude customers." The liquidators shut off the inventory systems, so booksellers can't tell for sure what books are in stock, and closed the public bathrooms and removed all the chairs, because the stores are no longer a place for customers to browse and linger. (The good news is now they'll no longer have homeless people drinking Robitussin and stashing their empty bottles around the stores, Amanda says, and booksellers no longer have to worry about walking in on naked men bathing themselves in the bathroom sink.) Almost as bad as the people who are outraged that the Borders has no more public bathrooms and that they can't order new titles anymore are the customers who are overly concerned for the employees. Amanda says people furrow their brows and ask, "So, what are you doing now?" She understands that they mean well, but "person after person asking about your future gets a little annoying."

So, uh, what is she doing now? "I definitely wouldn't go work for Barnes & Noble. I just don't want to work for a big corporate chain. Basically, I don't want to work retail." She'd like to do something with a small publisher or an art gallery. She says most of her coworkers don't want to go to Barnes & Noble, either, even though most of them want to stay involved in books somehow. Lots of employees are going to use the unemployment benefits to fund more schooling or a move to a new city. She's sad to see the regular customers go. "We have people who come in every day. Some of them swear they won't ever give Barnes & Noble their business. I'm telling everybody that they should go to Elliott Bay to spend their money." She plans to keep in touch with her coworkers, who have become "a tight-knit family." She's made friends at Borders who she thinks she'll have for her entire life.

The fact that Borders is closing isn't heartbreaking—it's been coming for a long time. Amanda thinks customers who prefer Borders to Barnes & Noble like it because it's "kind of an underdog," which is maybe a polite way of saying that losing has always been part of the Borders DNA. The heartbreaking thing is that this fall, over 10,000 bookstore employees across America will be out of work. The way the publishing industry is going, many of those people won't be able to find jobs that are even tangentially related to books anymore; they'll go on to work in movie theaters and grocery stores and as secretaries and child-care providers. They probably won't be able to spend their days being obsessed with books, and that's a bad thing for books, which have a hard enough time battling for attention in popular media.

There will always be booksellers, online and in physical stores. But there will probably be far fewer booksellers than there are now. The physical bookstores of the future may not look anything like Borders, which already feel like an exercise in nostalgia with their wasteful, sprawling layouts and quaint maroon-and-tan palette. Barnes & Noble feels like part of the past now, too. You can tell that even Barnes & Noble executives know it because just about every Barnes & Noble now features a huge display of the various iterations of their Nook e-readers, virtually blocking your entry in the front of the store. A helpful, flesh-and-blood bookseller always mans those displays, ready to explain all the nifty things that a Nook can do that physical books can't. When you think about it, that's really the most humiliating part of all this; even John Henry wasn't forced to smile and praise the steam drill that replaced him. John Henry took the dignified way out when he saw the way things were going: His heart exploded, and he lay down and died. recommended

This story has been corrected since its original publication to clarify the circumstances of the Borders employee who died of a heart attack.


Comments (142) RSS

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My only complaint is the slight against The Clash cds!
Posted by LML on August 3, 2011 at 9:51 AM · Report this
Paul Constant 2
@1: No slight—there was just a whole entire, you know, MUSIC SECTION for that kind of display, and it really was the best display spot in the whole fiction section.
Posted by Paul Constant http://https://twitter.com/paulconstant on August 3, 2011 at 10:07 AM · Report this
Good luck using unemployment benefits to finance a new degree or a move to another city. I say that in a depressed sense rather than a nyah-nyah one.
Posted by whomever whilst have me on August 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM · Report this
Well said, Paul.
Posted by augurgirl http://dearmrpresident365.blogspot.com on August 3, 2011 at 10:37 AM · Report this
Thanks, Paul. Brings back memories of simpler times in my life...
Posted by Mr. Happy Sunshine on August 3, 2011 at 10:39 AM · Report this
What does "hand-selling" mean in this context? None of the definitions at dictionary.com quite make sense to me.
Posted by aieoruqpoie on August 3, 2011 at 11:09 AM · Report this
I lasted less than a month at Borders back in 2006. I couldn't stand working there. It felt so cold and soulless. While I'm not sorry to see the chain go, I feel horribly for all the hard-working people who will be out a job. :(
Posted by wc8 on August 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM · Report this
santababy 8
The first half of this reads like the plot to Empire Records. If only Borders had thought to hire Renee Zellweger to host a roof party, this all could have been avoided.
Posted by santababy on August 3, 2011 at 11:10 AM · Report this
sikandro 9
Nice piece.

Just read an essay yesterday by George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories." Takes a different turn from yours about how working at a bookstore changes the relationship with books. He loses his love for books.

Posted by sikandro on August 3, 2011 at 11:15 AM · Report this
Rotten666 10
Good article.
Posted by Rotten666 on August 3, 2011 at 11:17 AM · Report this
"A tiny, mean ferret of a man became our store manager..."

Just now, my Schnapple bottle cap educated me:

"Ferret comes from the Latin word for 'little thief'."

How serendipitous...
Posted by CosmicLint on August 3, 2011 at 11:19 AM · Report this
gladcow 12
I worked for Borders during the same time period, Paul. Albeit on the other side of the country. You captured it perfectly.
Posted by gladcow on August 3, 2011 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Having worked with Paul for a while at that same Borders (including time under the reign of the small ferret-faced manager -- who never referred to books or CDs as such, but as "product", and used awful corporate terms like "no-brainer", which cause me to hate that term to this day), experienced much of the same Ann Arbor-fueled assery at that store, and observed the changes in Borders over the years since, I'm anything but surprised that Borders is closing. It was a lumbering beast that had its moment (maybe one-two years in mid-late 1990s) where it was doing most everything right in terms of where publishing was, but then the corporate types got greedy and stupid, and with no forward-looking vision (as displayed most powerfully by the decisions to not move to selling DVDs early on in that cultural shift, or the focus on an internet presence, and to hand that over to Amazon.com), I feel like most everything they've done since I left (and even before then) has felt like the flailing before the death (especially adding in their greeting card/wrapping paper/shiny crap line).

I started in remainders at a store in Jersey, which are basically the hardcover books publishers want to get rid of after the paperbacks are out, or just plain badly selling books (like Dan Quayle's political ouevre). Then after moving to Boston and selling piles and piles of remainders, I moved onto music books, then new books and inventory management for the store. These roles (well, maybe not music books) all showed me the general life of a book, and particularly, how they move through a mainstream store like Borders. In the end, the bottom line of both remainders and new books is volume, volume, volume. Any brief successes I had in creating something unique to the store (a discounted staff selection area) or expressing any sense of my or my co-workers' senses of personality in displays, etc. was crushed by the advent of Oprah's Book Club and ever-increasing micromanagement of what books we pushed, paid or gave attention to by Ann Arbor.

One of the saddest moments I've ever had was about two years ago when I went back to the Boston store, and saw one of the folks Paul and I worked with (over 12 years ago) still in the DVD and music store. I couldn't bring myself to say hi.

All that said, I loved working with (most of) the folks I did at that store -- some serious characters, at least until Ferret-face arrived. I loved being around books (even if it meant I sometimes had to stress out about maintaining our stock of awful ones like "The Rules"). And while I didn't have quite as wild a time as Paul, I distinctly remember some ridiculously wonderful parties (not the Christmas one with the BJs, thank God) and times.

And likely my most favorite time was when I got to sit in a room with Arundhati Roy, right after "The God of Small Things" came out. Boston was her FIRST stop on her FIRST US book tour ever, and I got to sit in a room with her for an hour while she signed books in preparation for her reading, and talk to her about writing, life, etc. I always talk about that whenever someone brings her up. Sometimes I think that hour made all the other crap worth it.
Posted by bookworm on August 3, 2011 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Paul Constant 14
@6: Hand-selling just basically means selling a book to a customer by personally recommending it. As opposed to a customer looking for a specific book or picking a book up of a display, hand-selling is when a bookseller says "you should really read this book because..." and convinces the customer to buy the book. It's the main thing that physical bookstores can do that online retailers can't.
Posted by Paul Constant http://https://twitter.com/paulconstant on August 3, 2011 at 11:30 AM · Report this
I knew the ferret-faced manager when he was some sort of corporate zealout for the Syracuse store. Initials were CC, I believe.

Great article.

Initially the booksellers had to take some sort of trivia test to show their mettle, but it was "deemed" too difficult for future generations of employees.
Posted by old clyde on August 3, 2011 at 11:46 AM · Report this

I wanna riot of my own!
Posted by LML on August 3, 2011 at 12:08 PM · Report this
Wicked Virgin 17
I didn't work there, but I really liked that Boston Borders store. It was a good place to browse, and they keep the special orders inside an old bank vault.
Posted by Wicked Virgin http://goo.gl/nBxVY on August 3, 2011 at 12:30 PM · Report this
Read Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties!
Posted by inthebigmuddy on August 3, 2011 at 2:00 PM · Report this
I only went to my first Borders a few years ago, but I can easily picture everything the author described. By the time they got to liquidation, there wasn't a single book or other item in Borders I would want to buy, even at deep discount. I went to my local Borders shortly after they announced the liquidation, browsed for TWO HOURS and bought NOTHING. What a waste.
Posted by Gay Movie Fan on August 3, 2011 at 2:08 PM · Report this
@Paul - you obviously love books and you are obviously a passionate guy. You got a lot of things right in this article. I was right there with you - up to a point. I was with you until you began to malign a person for the purpose of making your story sound better. Sure, you didn't mention his name. But, if you worked for Borders when that individual did (or if a person can use Google as well as you) it isn't too hard to figure out who you are talking about. Maybe you are okay with that. But, it made you a little less credible to me. I too, once worked for this individual (but not at the Boston store). I found him to be a great boss and a decent human being. Your experience, it seems, was different than mine. But no matter how you cut it, I can guarantee that the "tiny, mean ferret of a man" would never be so disparaging (especially in such a public forum) to anyone he ever worked with. And that makes him a more stand-up guy than you.
Posted by Book Girl on August 3, 2011 at 2:15 PM · Report this
Estey 21
This is the best article on Border's we'll ever get to read. Thanks, Paul. (And yeah, @19, I don't understand the liquidation thrill-seekers. It's been hard to find really good new books in Borders the past couple of years, so why would I want to go buy some cheap bad books now? Oh yeah, resale to compulsive Internet buyers ... but I'm not in that game.)
Posted by Estey on August 3, 2011 at 2:21 PM · Report this
I also worked for Borders, on and off, and while our store was calmer than the store in Boston Paul talked about, I developed very similar views about Borders management between my first stint at Borders ('93-;95) and my second ('01-'02). The demise of Borders was no surprise at all, and it wasn't all Amazon's fault: http://nolongerslowblog.blogspot.com/201…
Posted by Laurie Mann on August 3, 2011 at 2:36 PM · Report this
great article.

and yes, the first chunk of this DOES sound like a '90s slackcom.
Posted by gi on August 3, 2011 at 2:45 PM · Report this
It was hard to stay human during the Ron Marshall years. He was a horrible person. I don't think he realized we work with books, and have maybe read books on management. None of them advocate bullying and abuse as a tool. I would also list the horrible inventory systems which never really gave us inventory control and the 20 year leases which made it impossible to resize stores even when we realized the trend to smaller retail was here. After that, just corporate mismanagement. We were among the top selling religious/bible store in the company, yet could never keep stuff in stock. No one at AA would go out on a limb to spend the money, though the sales were there. After sixteen years I'm losing my family, the people I work with, which is the only thing that kept me there.
Posted by Cieneth on August 3, 2011 at 3:52 PM · Report this
Good analysis. I worked at store #93 in Santa Monica from July of '95 thru final closing sale & clean-up in January of 2009. The corporate shifts were definitely felt at the ground level and yes the .com miss around 2000,2001 was a big one.

Bob Bass
Posted by Bob Bass on August 3, 2011 at 5:50 PM · Report this
I was an assistant manager at store #66, Seattle downtown when it opened, and worked there for three years. Even back then (mid-90's) it was clear that the company was going down the drain. Our original mandate was to "localize" the store by having staff order books to fill their sections, keeping local interests in mind. That stopped by year two, and we were told what we were going to stock. Business started going down at that point. I'm really amazed it took this long for the company to fold. It was a long, painful decline.
Posted by jesse1234 on August 3, 2011 at 6:30 PM · Report this
A few of our local Borders closed in the previous round of liquidations. I went in the final weeks, and easily spent $300. Maybe that makes me a soulless bitch, maybe the wealth of remaining sellection indicates that people in Denver don't read. In either case, there are a handful of stores in our metro that are cllosing in this the final round, and I'll be shopping those stores as well.

I love Barnes & Noble, Borders always felt very sterile and not like I could sink into a chair with a book. But I much prefer the small local bookstore, I just haven't found one here yet. I'm disappointed every year at Christmas (which apparently starts in stores in Sept) when B&N is full of toys and other crap. I hate to buy books online, I don't care how much of a discount Amazon gives. I like to be able to pick up a book, smell the new paper and ink, flip to a random page and read a few paragraphs. There's no subsitute for that.
Posted by catballou on August 3, 2011 at 6:38 PM · Report this
Thank you. I worked for Borders for ten years until 2010, when I was run out by a GM who was fired a few months later for stealing from customers. You have written the most honest testimonial of what really happened to Borders. Word for word, your experience there was my own. It was nice to finally read an article written by someone who truly understands what happened and what is happening.

I'm not a bit sorry that Borders is closing. It's why the corporation deserves. But my experiences there will always be a part of me and I am grateful for them.
Posted by NuttyNerdGirl on August 3, 2011 at 7:21 PM · Report this
Thank you. I worked for Borders for ten years until 2010, when I was run out by a GM who was fired a few months later for stealing from customers. You have written the most honest testimonial of what really happened to Borders. Word for word, your experience there was my own. It was nice to finally read an article written by someone who truly understands what happened and what is happening.

I'm not a bit sorry that Borders is closing. It's why the corporation deserves. But my experiences there will always be a part of me and I am grateful for them.
Posted by NuttyNerdGirl on August 3, 2011 at 7:30 PM · Report this
bibliogrrl 30
What a well written, true and heartbreaking read.

I'm lucky to work at a small independent bookshop now - the 5 years I spent in the Border's book mines helped me secure the job after an ill-advised stint trying to work a desk job at a small publisher didn't work out so well.

I got out not long after the Borders Rewards cards came about - when they started lording the quotas over us, I knew it was time to get out. Borders was no longer selling books - we were marketing a lifestyle. I was not going to play a part in that.

It makes me so sad. The mismanagement, the fact that quite a few people I know will now be among the (many more people I know) without jobs.

I'm so lucky to still be working in a bookshop. The pay may not be the best, but damn I love my job.
Posted by bibliogrrl on August 3, 2011 at 7:30 PM · Report this
unclep 31
I agree w/Estey - best words we will likely read on the Borders situation...R.I.P
Posted by unclep on August 3, 2011 at 8:06 PM · Report this
Idaho Spud 32
@CatBallou, You've not found Tattered Cover? They have charming locations in Denver. http://www.tatteredcover.com/locations-h… Colfax Avenue is in a re-purposed theater, it's a great space. Downtown's is nice too.
Posted by Idaho Spud on August 3, 2011 at 8:12 PM · Report this
Paul, you've answered the questions I had. I hate to visit the Barnes and Nobles bookstore in Springfield, MO because I can never leave without spending at least $50, usually more. I live 100 miles from a book store so I always have a pent up demand. When I happened to be in Springfield last February, I noticed the signs on Borders advertising "Everything 10% to 50% off." How could I resist? I quickly discovered that only the magazines were 50% off, everything else was 10% off list. No matter, I'm used to paying list. Two hours later I left and bought nothing. I couldn't find a single book in my favorite genres that looked worth buying, even discounted. I'd never had that happen before. Usually, when I visit a bookstore I have to restrain myself not to bust my budget but Borders manage to have not one book that tempted me.
Posted by brolin1911a1 on August 3, 2011 at 10:16 PM · Report this
Borders' lack of a good website and lack of attention to ebooks really was its downfall. Of course, I was mortified when, during the final closeout at our local Borders and we had $100 of book purchases, my husband mentioned to the checkout girl that he hadn't bought a physical book in quite a while and only read ebooks anymore. He didn't seem to get it. I said quietly to him as we walked away, "you know you just told that girl that you're responsible for her store closing, right?"
Posted by amianda on August 3, 2011 at 10:29 PM · Report this
my store closed back in april, was unemployed for over a month, living off unemployment benefits that didnt even cover my bills. the 12 month period they based my unemployment on was during the year borders figured a skeleton crew was enough - i.e., 8 hours a week = less than $200 every two weeks in unemployment. working retail again, but stil heartbroken over the rape and murder of my store by the corporate dickfors that "always know better".

I still cry in the bathroom a bit after accidentally answering the work phone with "thank you for calling Borders, this is.."
Posted by jinx086 on August 3, 2011 at 10:42 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 36
Yeah, Catballou, are you even looking? Tattered Cover is an institution in the indie book world, not just Denver.
Posted by Matt from Denver on August 3, 2011 at 10:55 PM · Report this
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Bauhaus I 38
I was such a loyal Border customer back in the day. Their music section was dynamite. It had EVERYTHING. But I noticed, as the 90s closed, a change in the store. Employees were way less friendly, and of course, the music section was yanked out. But like Paul, I loved it for a while.
Posted by Bauhaus I on August 4, 2011 at 12:47 AM · Report this
Wow. I'm a former Borders employee (store 36 in Charlotte, NC) and reading your article is like reading my own thoughts. When people became the least valuable asset at Borders, Borders became a hellbound train. I really loved working at Borders, but, in the end, they deserved what they got.
Posted by loosecat on August 4, 2011 at 4:40 AM · Report this
i dont know about you but not all books are the same. alot of them are picture books and art books/cofeetable books. you can't replace those with a kindle. kindle might be fine for reading only text, but we still need bookstores for picture books and art books.
Posted by eddi on August 4, 2011 at 7:07 AM · Report this
As someone who also went to work for Borders in 1996, I agree completely with this article. I left in 2000, but still shopped often & visited old co-workers. I had the same thoughts about their lack of iniative in regards to an online presence. My local store closed last spring. I'm still terribly sad and miss it. I especially miss the Borders of the 90s. That was a company that was different and had hope.
Posted by Magi on August 4, 2011 at 8:36 AM · Report this
It was always Harvard Book Store for me. A Borders in Cambridge was like having an Applebee's on Newbury Street.
Posted by Jacques Rigaut on August 4, 2011 at 8:53 AM · Report this
I can relate to the closing of a business and what that entales. I was with a retailer for over 28years and the liquidation process is brutal, not only do you have to tend to people who had never been in your store, you have to deal with the personal emotions that are tied to your employment the years of memories the knowing that most of the people that you seen on a day to day basis those you worked with will no longer be there to share experiences with. It was an extremely emotional experience for one that I never want to repeat again. I psyched myself up thinking that I could actually handle the experience but on the day after everything was over it hit and hard I was depressed I had plans in place however no plans on dealing with the fall out. No one prepares you for after everything is over gather with some people who are experiencing the same thing for support no one unless you go through it too. It is a loss and should be treated as such nothing will ever be the same and your world does get turned upside down and inside out.
Posted by dmars045 on August 4, 2011 at 9:06 AM · Report this
I couldn't have described my own 7 years at Borders any better. Thanks for the great read, Paul!
Posted by poshgirl on August 4, 2011 at 9:44 AM · Report this
Check out our Help Ex-Borders Employees Blog - Help ex-Borders employees find work, make rent, have food and survive - http://borders.posterous.com/
Posted by Chris Kubica on August 4, 2011 at 10:07 AM · Report this
This reads like a multitude of once promising companies going under. Bigger, faster, stronger morphing into dumber, slower, blander, and out of business...it's the American way.
Posted by Jerry Spivack on August 4, 2011 at 10:32 AM · Report this
nice to see my relentless love of s-k affected someone.
Posted by jacobmrley on August 4, 2011 at 10:54 AM · Report this
I worked at the Michigan Ave store in Chicago for a couple of years. (Heck, I sorted that store!) Started in True Crime/Western/Romance and moved to New Books. Loved my job, loved the people I worked with, loved the location, hated my paycheck. I was a part of a group who tried unsuccessfully to unionize the store and then I left to go back to school. When I moved to Seattle I applied at the downtown store only to be told I wasn't qualified to work there. My indignation was so complete I could barely speak. Tell me you aren't hiring, tell me you don't like me, tell me you'll let me know and then never call. But do not tell me I'm not qualified - not when I worked in the busiest section of the flagship store and rocked it out! Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I now know I was damn lucky not to get hired there. I never had to deal with Borders Reward cards or Make items or the ever-worsening managers. I hear stories of what the later employees (2000 -onward) dealt with and it makes my head spin. Borders destroyed itself.
Posted by store58wasgreatbackintheday on August 4, 2011 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Very similar to the downfall of Tower Records in so many ways.
Posted by Former Tower Employee on August 4, 2011 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Great work... Go write your book... The Ultimate Insult will be a book from yourself.
Posted by Mike Jablonski on August 4, 2011 at 12:35 PM · Report this
The Kelvis 51
Best. Borders. Ever.
Posted by The Kelvis on August 4, 2011 at 1:11 PM · Report this
I work at an independent bookstore in Canada and the scary thing is that I can see shades of my own bookstore in this article. I feel sad for the employees, if not the regular customers.
Posted by bookstorequeer on August 4, 2011 at 2:51 PM · Report this
Sounds suspiciously like the present Books A Million chain (now the second largest chain since Borders closed) right down to pushing/selling "Millionaire Cards" to customers for $20 a pop, James Patterson novels and diet books taking over the store (and the amazing amount of right wing propaganda the store I worked in lined the aisle with, Glenn beck, Bill O'Reiley, etc...ugh). Also, the Birmingham, Alabama based chain has now partnered with Barnes and Noble to sell the Nook! I feel bad for my friends that still work for the company, but I'm secretly praying fo their demise (I quite a few months ago after 3.5 years). They treat their employees and store managers like crap (and there is definitely a trickle down effect taking place there...)and expect loyalty and blind devotion, especially when it comes to selling those stupid discount ards, which they claim, pay booksellers salaries! Idiots...
Posted by Kiki68 on August 4, 2011 at 3:34 PM · Report this
If you think Borders was bad, you should have worked for an insurance company. You may not have thought it was the best place to work but you stayed for quite a long time and it paid your bills. No employer is perfect and management within a large company is usually bad. One hand doesn't know what the other is doing and nobody asks the little people who are actually in the trenches trying to make the business profitable, for any advice. Why didn't Borders try to get some autors to come in for book signings? We had a terrific little Mom & Pop book store nearby that used to have Mary Higgins Clark every few years. Unfortunately they went out of business - or retired, I'm nto sure. Maybe this will bring back those little stores - if they also had coffee bars, that would be a big draw for me.
Posted by Bella T on August 4, 2011 at 4:06 PM · Report this
Having worked for Waldenbooks as an Asst manager through most of the 90s, I can totally relate to much of what you say here. There was a 2 year period where Ann Arbor let us do pretty much whatever we wanted, except for a couple mandatory displays each month (this was during the big move/consolidation of Waldenbooks/Borders HQ under the Borders Group banner, and as a result, they didn't have time to bother with telling each store how to run themselves, and our District Manager was very cool, so he let us do our thing, too)...

Anyhow, once the consolidation was done and they pretty much mapped out how EACH AND EVERY end cap in the store had to be set up, I could see the future and it wasn't bright. And when they wouldn't embrace the internet, still trying to cling to printed newsletters, even as late as 1998, I could hear the bells starting to toll.
Posted by Terry Willitts on August 4, 2011 at 4:59 PM · Report this
I always went to Borders. Never bought anything there, though. I liked the attmosphere and their coffee shop was way better than Stabucks (who is partnered with Barnes & Noble).
The thing that always got me about Borders was they put the prices of everything well above the MSRP and then plastered their 30% OFF stickers all over it, giving the impression of being able to buy it for a deal. Well, it worked for awhile, since the average Joe is stupid enough to buy based strictly on a sale or clearance sticker than based on proper pricing or need. But the last few years, the average Joe has become more frugal and intellegent in their spending. Which is why Blockbuster is pretty much gone, and Borders is now closing.
Posted by CarolR on August 4, 2011 at 5:08 PM · Report this
Jesus, Paul, I cried over your profoundly written article on Borders.

Naaah, just kidding, you still suck, dood.

I just can't figure out why Elliott Bay Book would ever even look at you with a background like that?????

Try an interesting subject next time, big guy!
Posted by sgt_doom on August 4, 2011 at 5:37 PM · Report this
please don't underestimate the adverse impact on borders' finances of the "borders rewards" card and the concomitant coupons, and the "buy x get y free" trade paperback promotions. none of these were funded at all by vendors. so, borders essentially gave up from 25% to 50% in earned discount on all such sales. if these had been to strictly new customers, no problem, but borders started aggressively pushing the card/coupons/free offers to their existing customer base, without hope of margin recapture. CDs and DVDs were also being purchased from AEC, a distributor in florida for from 12% to 20% and offered for up to 30% discounts. conversely, purchasing more from ingram or baker & taylor for stock-turns rather than from the publishers for discount, would have freed up valuable dollars as well. ceo phil feffer tried that and was pilloried by the then-board of directors members diromauldo and mrconic, who resented being kicked "upstairs" to make room for the ex-ingram and ex-random house president. i honestly believe that borders could have survived the internet debacle if it hadn't been for such wanton surrender of gross margin. oh yeah, that and horrendous freight-in and freight-out costs and excessive inventory carrying costs. also, borders was very opposed to refusing any returned book almost in any condition whatsoever, thus turning the dominant bookseller in many towns into the area's largest lending library. claiming they could re-shelve or return the book masked the reality to non-book industry dimwits that they were effectively purchasing used books at no discount only to re-sell it at sale prices again and again. sic semper tyrannosaurus.
Posted by D2fromA2 on August 4, 2011 at 5:38 PM · Report this
"Closed the public restrooms"? What public restrooms? The few times I went in that crappy, overpriced store I asked to use the restroom (something about book & music stores makes me have to pee) some grouchy employee told me there wasn't any. I always laughed when I heard about some homeless person pooping in the aisles.
Posted by meso on August 4, 2011 at 5:55 PM · Report this
i knew folks who worked at borders. i would go every few months and they always knew me. it will suck going and knowing i will never see them again. i could always find some cool tunes there or just unique folks. i remember going there with a friend once and we just chilled on the floor reading the zombie survival guide while some musician was there playing a live set. i bought the zombie survival guide... well 2. one for me one for a friend. i will miss that place.
Posted by mike from memphis on August 4, 2011 at 6:06 PM · Report this
When I saw that you worked in the Boston store, I wondered if you would mention the manager. "a tiny ferret of a man" I couldn't have described him better. I was a new GM in his district. What hell he put us through. There were 5 female GM's in the district, when I went sceaming out the door several months later, there was one female left. He was a large part of what went wrong with Border's at that time. He was the rising star in the company, no wonder they are closing.
Posted by rbud on August 4, 2011 at 7:51 PM · Report this
That Borders at the Maine Mall was the best. They had a decent criticism section and I even remember picking up a couple of Killing Joke cds there. RIP Maine Mall Borders.
Posted by RobertJ on August 4, 2011 at 8:33 PM · Report this
I feel tremendously sorry for those who have lost their job in this bloodletting (i lost my job a year and a half ago in another industry that mirrors the book business) but as I advanced my way through this story I got increasingly irritated by its tone and apprehension of the particular circumstances of Borders' demise. It occurred to me that I read similar pieces years ago on the demise of the big box record/CD stores like Tower and Virgin. Borders fell victim based on a confluence of factors that afflict all retail establishments that are predicated on specific market forces. Bad management doesn't help but please spare me all the sturm und drang about how it was some corporate utopia prior to the crisis. These stores developed organically over time and worked well under a different environment. That environment was never going to last forever; that's why no one reading this is shopping @ Montgomery Ward or Sears. Sorry. books are product, literary product but nonetheless. They're not product when they're in a library. Corporations are always telling employees they're family until it all goes south. Then you're just another person selling books and trying to hang on as forces beyond your control have your destiny in its hand. Complaining about individuals in these circumstances is petty. You're ALL cogs in a machine. I know that's harsh but welcome to 'Modern Times.' Might there have been a moment when the management could have found a better way? Maybe. But Jeff Bezos is a competitor and he's coming to rip your heart out. Failure to grasp this elemental concept is folly and your executives failed to understand what was coming. Does it hurt? Yes. But acting churlish doesn't alleviate the situation although it's clear other Borders ex-employees can identify. And with all due deference to Orwell, there's always been a dissonance between the business of book-selling and the art of books. Ask those who make sausage and those who like to eat them.
Posted by Vermeer on August 4, 2011 at 8:46 PM · Report this
TVDinner 64
@20: See 61.
Posted by TVDinner http:// on August 4, 2011 at 8:57 PM · Report this
memorex 65
I worked for Borders from 98-03, and your experience mirrors mine very closely. At store 97, we were talking about the end of the company ten years ago.
Posted by memorex on August 4, 2011 at 9:05 PM · Report this
I worked for B&N for 11 years. Starting at a large concept store when it was a BookStar owned by Bookstop in Texas. I loved those years working with books and great people and became part of management. Barnes and Noble bought Bookstop/Star and kept the names on the existing stores because they had a loyal following. The next five years the company changed to become a streamlined monster that would drive out rivals such as Crown Books, etc. . I've seen a lot of ugliness over the changes that would follow, from selling spacing to publishers and monthly directives form a corporate world on the other coast. I could write a lengthy story of experiences from the other side of this fence. Weekly we were asked to do a "competitive analysis" of the competition (spying) and submit our findings to the District Manager which always made me feel dirty. I spent many hours in Borders stores and always admired (in the early days) the atmosphere it presented. My favorite thing was that the employees did not need to wear ties and dress shirts as a pretense for a professional image. I always thought Borders would outlast the less creative and slow moving giant of Barnes & Noble... the truth is it will... but not by much.
Posted by the past in books on August 4, 2011 at 9:18 PM · Report this
fannerz 67
As someone who is 2 weeks away from quitting my job at the Canada version of Borders... I hear ya. I fucking hear ya.
Posted by fannerz on August 4, 2011 at 9:51 PM · Report this
TheOldProfessor 68
The content is excellent, of course, but the structure and format of this article enters the realm of the sublime. Very beautifully crafted.

Posted by TheOldProfessor on August 4, 2011 at 10:27 PM · Report this
I went to the South Hill Puyallup liquidation , bought nothing, then went to my car and cried.
My late husband and I spent many many hours @ Borders, took our children there, enjoyed a coffee, made friends.
B&N does nothing for me, they don't offer any place to sit, it's sterile.
RIP Borders, I will miss you.....
Posted by luvthesun on August 4, 2011 at 10:31 PM · Report this
I worked there for 6 years, saw many changes, and came out in the end heartbroken.

Especially around the time they were making us sell "key and make" titles. Books that Borders made us sell a certain quantity weekly. If we didn't hit our goals we were written up, 3 write ups and we were fired. That is like going into a grocery store and having an employee push a certain brand of butter on you that no one has heard of and the employee hasn't even tried.

If we were not heard mentioning the "key or make" title of the month in every conversation, it went on our :report cards." Also, the store received DAILY posts about how our store was failing / winning this goal compared to the other stores in the district. Instead of unifying the district we were pitted against one another frequently.

Some of the worst business decisions I have ever heard of came through Borders. Let's hope that no other company becomes like it did in the end.
Posted by thewiseonedied on August 4, 2011 at 10:50 PM · Report this
I worked there for 6 years, saw many changes, and came out in the end heartbroken.

Especially around the time they were making us sell "key and make" titles. Books that Borders made us sell a certain quantity weekly. If we didn't hit our goals we were written up, 3 write ups and we were fired. That is like going into a grocery store and having an employee push a certain brand of butter on you that no one has heard of and the employee hasn't even tried.

If we were not heard mentioning the "key or make" title of the month in every conversation, it went on our "report cards." Also, the store received DAILY posts about how our store was failing / winning this goal compared to the other stores in the district. Instead of unifying the district we were pitted against one another frequently.

Some of the worst business decisions I have ever heard of came through Borders. Let's hope that no other company becomes like it did in the end.
Posted by thewiseonedied on August 4, 2011 at 10:55 PM · Report this
I totally agree with this essay. I was a manager for Borders and loved the fact that I could dress my own way. Then one day it was "collared shirts" for management. My customers thought I was crazy for going along with it. My usual attire was along the lines of rockabilly/punk. The staff recommends section went from a table to a bookcase to an endcap in my time. So sad. I would tell customers if I hadn't read a book but if someone I trusted had and liked it. They loved that I was honest. I still see customers 5 years after I left saying that I really made them love coming to Borders. They all said the management after I left had no concept of what a book was.
I totally agree that the nail in Borders coffin was when they let Amazon sell for them online. Welcome to Borders and then redirect to Amazon. How many people would come in with books they got online and say "Aren't you and Amazon the same company". I say good riddance to a company that forgot that the thing that separated them from the competition was the quality of the person selling the book not the price of the book.
Posted by xwolf1369 on August 5, 2011 at 12:20 AM · Report this
73 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
I never liked Borders anyway, but it was a good article. I would say that it was basically the same as B&N except they made worse business decisions. Inside the store they have been roughly the same for years. Maybe B&N had better service and recognize the future better. Either way, on-line and small stores is the real future of books, and isn't that what book lovers want anyway? One down, one to go.
Posted by people are everywhere on August 5, 2011 at 2:50 AM · Report this
Hi there,
Wow thank you for writing that, you captured perfectly how I feel. I work at a Borders in New Zealand, and I know you said you were against it going international which is understandable, but our store was just the same. We were like a family who would go out each Friday night, we all had our staff recommendations around the store and we all loved books.
And then things changed and we got in 100 copies of the same new book and none of the classics or hard to find series we were known for. We couldn't put up a display without approval from Australia. And we got loads of junk to sell instead of CDs. And now needless to say we're closing too. Sad story.
Posted by Ellienz on August 5, 2011 at 3:09 AM · Report this
I worked in an independent bookstore in the 1970's and loved it. I first walked into a Borders in suburban Boston in the mid-1990's. It was such a fantastic, well-run place that I didn't believe it was part of a chain (my father finally was able to convince me that it was). I loved the notecard recommendations the staff placed throughout the store, and the fiction selection was amazing. Going to Borders in those days was a treat, something I never felt about B&N. Over the years, Borders gradually lost their best attributes, and this article paralleled my experience as a buyer. Even in the past year, I still loved Borders, and she will be missed. Fortunately, the Boston suburbs still have a few good independents, but I wonder how long they will last.
Posted by LonelyinBoston on August 5, 2011 at 5:02 AM · Report this
Barnes & Noble is doing all the things that, according to this article, Borders didn't do. Will it survive? Maybe. But Amazon will certainly continue to thrive. A lot of hand-lettering scribes were laid off by Gutenberg's revolutionary press, and protested en masse... The real question is whether this post-industrial out-sourced economy can any longer absorb all the people laid off by the automation and internet revolutions. Maybe it can't.
Posted by Kurnewal (look it up) on August 5, 2011 at 5:43 AM · Report this
I worked for Borders in 1986-87, and it was an amazing place. Everyone there loved literature and every store had its own personality. Then it was bought out by Rite Aid and began its slow decline. Unfortunately, Borders does deserve to go under. You can't run a bookstore if you don't love books.
Posted by Jack M on August 5, 2011 at 5:57 AM · Report this
I worked at two different Barnes and Nobles part time back in the 1980s off and on for about three years. I was there to use the employee discount to build my own home library of books. I read every Sunday book review supplement, helped customers special order books from publishers, and hand sold all the great books by new authors. Whenever an author published a new book, I made sure the customer new about their backlist. Unfortunately, no one else there loved reading or cared about books. The assistant manager never read a book review. If she did not recognize a book the customer asked for she lied and said it was not in stock yet or that we never carried it. She said she had never read a book review supplement and had no intention of doing so. I would signal customers when she walked away and help them. Our store manager filled the end caps on every book shelf with the crap books pushed to sell, and created an annual Christmas shop of books that could only have books that that had the word Christmas, New Years Ever or Holiday in the title. When these two women were off we changed the end caps to showcase the best selling books in our area. The Christmas shop was changed to include holiday books for all religions. The teens that worked at night and weekends all fell deathly ill on Friday nights and only worked weekends when it was raining. After I acquired a decent library I quit. I have no regrets about my time working in a chain book store because I got to help children and teens get passionate about reading (as an alternative to video games) and helped adults turn reading at home into family night. I have a Kindle now and mostly order my books and music online from Amazon. I rarely go into a book store now.
Posted by TVDIVA on August 5, 2011 at 6:59 AM · Report this
Gou Tongzhi 80
Mirrors my own experience with the store as a _customer_. It started out so great and slowly became soulless. Less cool music, fewer obscure titles, more diet books and Ann Coulter. And I was amazed way back in the day when I discovered Borders had no website. I thought, even back then, "these guys are losing money here."
Posted by Gou Tongzhi on August 5, 2011 at 7:38 AM · Report this
I worked 3 years for Barnes & Noble. I've worked over seven years for Books-A-Million. It's bewildering that Borders is the one that went over from this description, as BAM has been run like Borders was since at least 2002 (when i wound up stuck there the first time around,) only to extremes that many might not even be able to conceive. The contempt and mendacity that roars out their Birmingham home office is endless. Although i still work for the company and have quite a few friends there as well, i'll rejoice when it crashes and burns.

At the moment, BAM has partnered with B&N to sell the Nook. The training the employees receive is superficial, with a few details about how it can hold thousands of titles, ect. We receive no hands-on training and are encouraged to buy it ourselves to learn how it works so we can sell it. We were not informed before Christmas that the Nook could not directly access the BAM website, that e-books must be downloaded to a PC, then transferred to the Nook. Only the B&N site is supported directly. We lost quite a few customers in January, as their brand new Nooks were not truly compatible with our store.
Posted by badger golem on August 5, 2011 at 7:52 AM · Report this
I used to love Borders here in the UK, but by the time the big stores they had here in my city closed down, the stock was abysmal and I can well understand your frustration about the tat that was being promoted at the expense of good writing and classic literature. Our main bookseller here is now Waterstones which I haunt on a regular basis, a place filled with towering shelves of amazing stuff to discover and it feels like a place for the reader not the corporate machine - at least for now.
Posted by GingerMischief on August 5, 2011 at 8:00 AM · Report this
I can not fathom how Books A Million is able to stay in business. Take the stupidity of Borders and multiply it by 1000. I worked for both. The ONLY thing BAM cares about is suckers falling for the discount card and the magazine scam they run.
Posted by Deep Fix on August 5, 2011 at 8:10 AM · Report this
I liked that Seattle Borders. For years I went in there while waiting for the bus or just to kill time. I read a lot of magazines. And one time I even bought a notebook.
Posted by ThriftyBookLova on August 5, 2011 at 9:36 AM · Report this
All the more reason to pay a visit to Powell's in Portland if you live in the Pacific Northwest.
Posted by bookishcoug on August 5, 2011 at 9:41 AM · Report this
My biggest persistent complaint about Borders was that no one ever wanted to work the cash registers. There'd be three or four employees in the cafe, three at the info desk, and one poor shlub at the cash registers.

The book collection did go way downhill from what it was when it first opened and esp. in the last three years when it was just crap.
Posted by Bruno Cattivabrutto on August 5, 2011 at 10:00 AM · Report this
Badger 87
Once a company starts referring to what was once a creative endeavor as "product" it is time to leave.
Posted by Badger on August 5, 2011 at 11:53 AM · Report this
Whine, gossip, rude. Cheap article, low blows, trash talk. How this garbage was published is anyone's guess. Go back to school and finish your education---you might learn a thing or two.
Posted by Banana Republic Resident on August 5, 2011 at 1:02 PM · Report this
That Boston store was crap-- I've been there.
This article doesn't really reflect the beautiful bookstore in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor that I remember. RIP.
Posted by ann arborite on August 5, 2011 at 1:47 PM · Report this
Great article. Shows that the internet doesn't kill a corporation... its the MBAs.
Posted by GJ on August 5, 2011 at 2:41 PM · Report this
i worked at borders from 2000-2006. just as others have said, there was talk of the company going under long before now. when i started, i loved the ability to keep your store unique; we made our own music displays, selected our favorite books. when they took away our ability to make our mark on the store, that is when it started to die.
Posted by jayme on August 5, 2011 at 3:42 PM · Report this
I worked for Borders for over 4 years, while I was in college and after I graduated. I can definitely identify with your experience. I made friends I hope to keep for life, and had life experiences that I'll never regret. Seeing the store I worked at close, seeing the manager that had opened the store close it was a sad moment for me. Of all the full-time employees at Borders, only the GM received a severance package. Once the liquidators got in the store, the vibe turned from dismal to panicky. I really appreciate what you wrote: a real and no-holds-barred testament to a company the exemplified that not being in touch with reality on the corporate level, not accepting the times that you are in and not being able to teach the old dog new tricks was the demise of this company. Many people blame the fall of Borders on the e-reader, but that's not true. Waiting until 2008 to develop your own website, letting your biggest competition manage your website, and other decisions like not cross-training your employees to work all parts of the store (a tremendous waste of manpower, in my opinion) hurt Borders on the store level.
Posted by DarthLauraLou on August 5, 2011 at 3:51 PM · Report this
Fnarf 93
Great article, Paul. I feel your pain. I worked for a bookstore chain that went under, too, only I was there to the bitter end -- Upstart Crow in California. I have a friend who managed a Borders for a while, and was the best bookseller I've ever met, but who left when the management idiocy you describe got too overwhelming.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on August 5, 2011 at 3:56 PM · Report this
Thank you from another bookstore lover. If you're ever in San Francisco, check out Green Apple Books, best new and used place I've ever found. I'm on a serious budget these days, or I'd go to my local liquidating Borders and gorge myself on the marked down inventory, but I just can't afford it. Too many political contributions, too many donation s to the food bank.

I think the two posts holding up the tent of civilization are uncensored public libraries, and well stocked, well managed book stores. Seems like we're losing both, lately...
Posted by MinistryOfLove on August 5, 2011 at 4:33 PM · Report this
"The last Borders is expected to close in September." The Singapore store is allegedly not closing down - anyone have intel on whether that's true?
Posted by lowpex on August 5, 2011 at 7:44 PM · Report this
Thanks for that.

The first job offer I ever turned down as a starving recent college grad was $19K/yr and Tuesdays and Wednesdays off at the A2 flagship. Interesting to imagine where that path might have led.
Posted by capicola on August 5, 2011 at 7:50 PM · Report this
I worked at two Michigan Borders (not at Ann Arbor) from 1990 to 2001. This article is so accurate it's frightening.
Posted by adsr777 on August 5, 2011 at 8:25 PM · Report this
"While Borders was trying to avoid paying any attention to their website, they were expanding internationally—a series of ill-fitting launches in the UK, Australia, and Singapore."
Having gone from working for the original borders.com directly to working for Borders International, I heartily second this analysis. A mis-guided trade-off that really came back to haunt the company.
Posted by BeeDub on August 5, 2011 at 9:20 PM · Report this
Seattle still has a good selection of of book stores, but for a lot of small towns who have no other options than to go to a shopping mall, Borders was it.

I like smaller shops so I didn't shop at Borders in Seattle, but when I did I would see people sitting around browsing and not buying.

Another bookstore going down. RIP. Again such bag of crap for the people who are loosing their income.
Posted by Ltrane on August 6, 2011 at 9:41 AM · Report this
Excellent article, Paul. I worked for Waldenbooks (owned by the same company as Borders, I do believe) for 8 years, from the mid-eighties to the early nineties, and so much of what you relate here happened nearly identically at Waldens. Well, except for Internet sales and eReaders, of course. Otherwise, the scene played out the same, even right down to the "tiny, mean ferret of a man" manager. Oh yeah, we had one of those. Mismanagement at all levels of the organization, displays filled with junk completely unrelated to books (as one of my co-workers put it at the time, the store should have been renamed to "Waldencrap"), quotas for pushing club cards..yeah, it all sounds scarily familiar.

I'll miss Borders. I went to my local store every week, but I doubt I'll go to the liquidation sales. Deals or no, it's too depressing.
Posted by YogSoth on August 6, 2011 at 10:28 AM · Report this
this story mirrors my experience at "The Good Guys" electronic store in 98/99. they're dead now too. these were commission salesmen, the managers were all dickheads.
Posted by Clooz on August 6, 2011 at 1:40 PM · Report this
I like how the author takes credit for predicting the demise of Borders, yet the reasons he gives have nothng to do with what actually caused the end. In fact, the very reasons he gives are the exact reasons Barnes and Noble are still in business.

This whole article celebrates mediocrity. It is quotes nd thoughts fro people, including the author, who are tiny widdle cogs in a large corporate world. That he is still so naive as to thnk that ANY of his time at Borders was special, that they were ever NOT a corporation bent on profits, shows just how mediocre he is. It is all wishful thinking.

It remnds me of current Starbucls employees. They were all "barristas" until they had to make a breakfast croissant; then they became glorified fast food workers.

Get over it, dude. If your ambition in life sticks you in retail for very long, you've made a serious mistake somewhere.
Posted by Adam in Phoenix on August 6, 2011 at 11:06 PM · Report this
seattlegrrrl 103
Excellent article, Paul. I'm sad anytime any bookstore anywhere closes. :(

Great more unemployed Americans. It's like this whole country is a bus sliding off a cliff in slow motion and John Boehner is driving.
Posted by seattlegrrrl http:// on August 7, 2011 at 10:57 AM · Report this
This article is a mess. It's about [your] life working for Borders? You spend 2/3rds of the article interviewing an exec whom you'd never known during your working days and an employee who's been there a year and proceed to ask her "what's changed?". Where is your editor? It sounds like there were tons of juicy stories from when you worked there...
Posted by fetish on August 7, 2011 at 12:16 PM · Report this
Can we just take a moment and mourn when the original Borders in Ann Arbor on State Street sold out. It was one of the best bookstores I've been to - in the vein of Powell's of Portland or Elliot Bay of Seattle. Its first step from local store to mega store in the 1990s was the first little death of its soul.
Posted by statestreetbordersfan on August 7, 2011 at 3:16 PM · Report this
Is the "ferret-faced man" the Boston Downtown Crossing General Manager Dan Durica? The guy's an asshole of twenty-five stripes, a half-wit and a malign blight upon this earth
Posted by robble robble on August 7, 2011 at 6:32 PM · Report this
I find it odd that until this article, I'd never herd the notion that Borders was the underdog/family store versus Barnes & Noble. I'd always believed the opposite, avoiding Borders at every turn.
Posted by Provlear on August 8, 2011 at 12:13 AM · Report this
108 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Reutte 109
I used to love Borders. I can't really remember when I stopped loving it but eventually I stopped going. I never really felt much for B&N either. So I guess its' 3rd Place or the University Bookstore now.
Posted by Reutte on August 8, 2011 at 12:44 AM · Report this
Not one book by Zola in the store. B&A did. Imagine no Zola.
Posted by bob mccarthy on August 8, 2011 at 1:31 AM · Report this
I remember Borders being great in the 90's, and then becoming like B&N--somewhere that I'd go intending to buy something specific, not find it, and then be unable to find ANYHTHING on the shelves that I did want to buy.

Also, what happened to Book Stop? I remember them being the 'death of mom and pop bookstores' scourge of the 80's and early 90's, with their discount card.
Posted by tiktok on August 8, 2011 at 11:28 AM · Report this
I've worked in the book retail biz for 11 years now, never as a manager.
my first beef is that the borders paul is writing about in 96 is in a completely different environment than bookstores are now. you would need to work then AND now to get a good reading about why borders didn't work out so well. my understanding is that borders never had a successful online presence when things started to change.
the days of big box retailers are over. it will be comparable to when big box cd/dvd stores went down. things change, ebb and flow. it certainly does suck to work these jobs when big change comes about.
i'm holding onto my job for health insurance reasons. i would love to apply at an independent book store but i can't afford to go without health insurance. i love elliot bay. my job is becoming more and more unpleasant - upper management uses threats (sales quotas) instead of positive reinforcement to make numbers. i have a feeling it's only going to get worse.
but, back to paul's article: picking on certain managers for the downfall of the company seems a little petty. and the bookstore i work at, even though it's a big box, carries zola.
Posted by warholbaby on August 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM · Report this
The other point no one seems to mention is just how badly Borders handled their CD and DVD business. While it is true that in their heyday they had a better selection of both CDs and DVDs than pretty much any bricks-and-mortar operation, their product was just TOO DAMNED EXPENSIVE. Even now as they liquidate, with DVD and Blu-Ray at 30% off their prices are only just pulling even with Best Buy, much less Amazon. It's a shame. I'll miss Borders, but I'd already been mourning it for years.
Posted by medievalmike on August 8, 2011 at 2:52 PM · Report this
super manga/anime/videogame/movie e.t.c expert 114
God damm,im gonna miss borders...i used to go to that book store every day,i used to read the magizines,and comics,and they had some good books,now...its all kindle krap...you assholes and your fucking computers are fucking up indeapendent print,i would not be suprized if the stranger went the way of the seattle p-i,god help you e-assholes if our contry was hit with a emp bomb,and there is many books out there not on kindle...and never will be...fight the machine!!! I don't give a fuck...i fucking hate kindle,it is more e-shit or I-shit fucking up socity...ever hear of cyber terrorism? Your kindle will be krap,along with your laptop,phone,tv,radio,portable dvd /blu-ray player,e.t.c so wake the fuck up robot slaves!!! Put doun your eletronic shit,and walk a few miles every day...there is no app for real life!!!
Posted by super manga/anime/videogame/movie e.t.c expert on August 8, 2011 at 7:35 PM · Report this
Supermanga is a super whiner. All that reading and you still never learned spelling or basic grammar, but at least you're angry and superior. Bet that's carried you far in life. Now go make me a latte.
Posted by Adam12 on August 8, 2011 at 9:11 PM · Report this
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Assembly line blowjobs at the company party. Sure. Knife-play and contributing to the delinquencey of minors? You betcha. But stealing from the boss? Beyond the pale.

Hmph. Sounds legit.
Posted by lol This Guy. on August 9, 2011 at 3:11 AM · Report this
I have never worked at Border's but I still loved the article. Your article isn't just about Borders to me...it's about alot of how alot of corporations conduct their business now.

"Wall Street loved the flash and glitz of Borders' international expansion, and it paid out well in the short term"

That quote really sums it up. The entire business outlook now seems to be for 'the short term'. They care about next quarter's profits only. They ride the cash pony fast & HARD until it's allll worn out. Then they hire some expendable ferret-faces to take over and finish running it into the ground while they sell their stocks and disassociate themselves with the business. They don't give a crap about books or employees or anything else. They just want to ride that cash train and get out the second their quarterlies dip below a certain %. Then they make or buy a new business and start all over again. This most basic thought process is the reason our country is circling the drain economicly.
Posted by Cynner on August 9, 2011 at 12:54 PM · Report this
aureolaborealis 119
I worked for Borders outside Philadelphia back in the early 90s. It was my first job with benefits. Lots of fucking. Lots of fun pretentiousness. It was like finding a newer, smarter, more unhinged high school cohort.

Then the awesomeness of cleaning shit off the walls of the public restrooms started to wear thin. And gathering up the unpurchased photography books arrayed around the shitter, opened to nudes.

Then the efficiency consultants arrived to watch us take change out of the tills and to explain that we were wasting company time by turning our wrists this way instead of that way. And so on.

I have fond, wistful memories, but I knew it was dead before I left in 93.
Posted by aureolaborealis on August 9, 2011 at 12:55 PM · Report this
I have never worked at Border's but I still loved the article. Your article isn't just about Borders to me...it's about alot of how alot of corporations conduct their business now.

"Wall Street loved the flash and glitz of Borders' international expansion, and it paid out well in the short term"

That quote really sums it up. The entire business outlook now seems to be for 'the short term'. They care about next quarter's profits only. They ride the cash pony fast & HARD until it's allll worn out. Then they hire some expendable ferret-faces to take over and finish running it into the ground while they sell their stocks and disassociate themselves with the business. They don't give a crap about books or employees or anything else. They just want to ride that cash train and get out the second their quarterlies dip below a certain %. Then they make or buy a new business and start all over again. This most basic thought process is the reason our country is circling the drain economicly.
Posted by Cynner on August 9, 2011 at 12:57 PM · Report this
I worked at Borders twice, once during a post-grad program and once between school and "real" work.

It was my first retail job and it was a trial by fire. I worked during the "key" and "make" book era. We were required to push certain titles - regardless of our opinion of them and whether or not we'd read them - and our numbers were tracked. Employees with low key and make numbers were fired without consideration of what else they sold, how well they knew their store and clientele, or how long they'd worked for the company. The managers of stores with low key and make numbers were also punished and at times fired, regardless of their performance in their district.

Well. I just ran out of steam thinking about it all. Suffice to say by the time I left I felt I might as well have been selling shower curtains at KMart (who paid more, btw). It was retail hell and the smell of desperation in the air stunk.

I am snarkily interested to see how my local GM fares. Over a decade of people management by firing and allowing the computer generation to pass her by is about to bite her in the ass. A legion of employees she sacrificed on the alter of Ann Arbor's absurdities is about to bite her on the ass.
Posted by FailingatAnonymity on August 9, 2011 at 1:51 PM · Report this
My partner worked at Borders for almost 10 years. It was a great place. And yes Virginia, it was head and hands above any "atmosphere" that Barnes and Noble" could ever hope to create in their stores. And all the things you have relayed in this piece are things my partner railed about for along time as things just got progressively worse and worse over time. It is truly a loss. But time marches on and we will as well. It's a pity, it really is.
Posted by Ed F. on August 9, 2011 at 4:14 PM · Report this
123 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
Good article. And I think good-riddance to Borders--it sounds like it became a bad place for customers and employees.

I'm sorry for the people on the ground who are losing their jobs in this miserable economy, but when a corporation's senior management makes bad decision after bad decision, the only appropriate outcomes are either to clean house at the top or to just shut the damned doors.
Posted by Functional Atheist on August 10, 2011 at 2:19 AM · Report this
If Borders were a government agency, they would just give it more tax money to keep it going, regardless of how mismanaged or unnecessary it was. Times change, stuff happens. That's life. Anybody who had a job they really, really liked for a few years is lucky. Also, the Borders store where I work (currently in liquidation) has classier employees than the one you worked at.
Posted by maryalice1 on August 10, 2011 at 9:37 AM · Report this
126 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
I'm sad to see them close.
Posted by GinnyGB on August 10, 2011 at 10:09 AM · Report this
E-assholes. I love it!
Posted by iloveeasshoes on August 10, 2011 at 10:44 PM · Report this
We shopped at the Southcenter (or Westfield shoppingtown Southcenter, whatever they call themselves now) weekly. With the 40% off coupons we went nuts. CDs and DVDs were WAY overpriced so never touched them.

The first week of the close-out when the computers were shut down, we smelled the stench of what they were pulling and have not been back since.
Posted by MommaRaisedNoFool on August 11, 2011 at 2:09 PM · Report this
I had a breakdown last night and just had to visit the Southcenter Boarders one more time.

RESTROOMS: "Sorry, no public restrooms. Plumbing out of order."

INVENTORY COMPUTERS: All off, some removed.

BOOKS: Did not see popular books. Removed for re-sale elsewhere? A lot of new books that reminded me of warehouses dumping non-sellers.

MAGAZINES: Half the shelf space. Other half 100% Books for Dummies. Score a "Windows 2003 Server for Dummies" there.

SEATING: All seating removed.

SEATTLE'S BEST COFFEE: Long since closed.

CDs and DVDs: Still double Target prices.

PRODUCT SELECTION: World's largest collection of cookbooks and Romance novels, large inventory of Lady Gaga magazines.

BOARDER'S REWARDS CARD: "Sorry but that ended yesterday."

NEW PRODUCTS: Full selection of bathrobes and bath slippers for women.

This actually does not surprise us here in Seattle. When Fredric & Nelson went out of business, all the good stuff disappeared overnight and profoundly inferior products appeared on all shelves throughout the store. In the ensuing uproar, David Saby informed the P.I., Times, and the public it was his store and he would sell WTF he wanted to.
Posted by MommaRaisedNoFool on August 12, 2011 at 8:21 AM · Report this
I started working for Borders in 1996, too. The author's experience so closely mirrors my own with Borders that I had to check to see if I wrote this and somehow forgot about it. There's a lot more to say about this - there were other good and unique things about Borders at one time, and more (and more complicated) reasons for it's eventual, inevitable demise.

Great article!
Posted by DZ 105 on August 12, 2011 at 10:40 AM · Report this
Your article is very engaging and I enjoyed reading it, but I don't understand the derision toward e-readers. It's like saying that printing on paper versus inscribing on scrolls devalues the writing itself.

People who love books and reading, will continue to read regardless of the format/media their books come in. And if books are presented in a way that is compatible with the busy and mobile way people live nowadays, all the better. Lugging a thousand-pager on the commuter train or on a camping trip would be quite inconvenient, for example.
Posted by Vladi on August 12, 2011 at 11:28 AM · Report this
I'm old, so I pick up on these things, but seems to me your whole opening gambit about being a hedonistic, unfeeling artiste among many hedonistic unfeeling artistes employed there sets the entire stage. It reads as failure from the ground up.
Posted by notaregusr on August 12, 2011 at 1:27 PM · Report this
I'm sorry, but I am a book lover AND a bargain hunter.. I don't think they are mutually exclusive.
Posted by cheap book lover on August 15, 2011 at 11:22 AM · Report this
Perfect example of a liberal whining. Now, I feel bad for anybody losing their job, but I can't be sad for people being forced to find a job that is - gasp! - not in a book-related field. That's life. None of us is owed a job in our chosen field. There would be many fields I wish I could find a job in - including anything to do with books, which I love. Unfortunately, I would never be able to find one that would pay enough. We all make our choices.

You complain about not being able to unionize Borders earlier. The fact that they weren't unionized probably extended their life (and the ability for 11,000 employees to enjoy a bookselling job) a few years more.
Posted by Chauncey (not my real name) on August 15, 2011 at 11:21 PM · Report this
Post 135 = conservative idiot. I'm surprised poster could read.
Posted by DUer on August 17, 2011 at 1:04 AM · Report this
I worked at Media Play in the book section in the early '90s. The people I worked with were the most intelligent, thoughtful, fun people I have ever met. We all loved books. Alas, it could not last and Media Play closed its doors. I went to that liquidation, I am not going to Border's.
Posted by winfran on August 17, 2011 at 7:02 AM · Report this
Posted by Aro2220.com on August 17, 2011 at 2:00 PM · Report this
Posted by Seeeee on August 22, 2011 at 6:58 AM · Report this
We had a moderate sized Borders here in the hills of Southern California exurbia that closed a few months ago in a frenzy of bargain madness. Kinda sad, really. It was a great place to go to spend a few hours, and maybe walk out with a nice volume to read later.
Posted by Koomer on September 7, 2011 at 1:09 PM · Report this
I worked for Borders' for nine years after I retired from teaching. I too loved books and stocked my library over the years. I left when I was changed to part time, losing all my benefits that made the difference when working for $8.33/hr. I loved the customers and coworkers and formed life-long friendships. I waited for the "other shoe to drop" for l 1/2 yrs. while witnessing unwarranted expansions at a time when the co. was loosing money and a general disregard for the quality of work when they were only watching the bottom line. District Managers would visit and change things around with no eye to customer's comfort. One had the reputation of never visiting a store he didn't want to change. There were only two other full time workers left when I threw in the towel. Three part time workers were hired in my place. It was so sad to see a once strong pillar of the retail community hit such a downfall. Fortunately I moved on to bigger and better things, but I will always remember Borders'! A hard-working former employee
Posted by Debbie Phillips on July 26, 2012 at 11:51 PM · Report this
Worked for BIS (Borders HQ)in the '89-'91 timeframe. The rot started at the very top (guys who name was on the wall) One was a crack-head who "disappeared" for six years and suddenly re-appeared and ruined the computer inventory system he invented. The other was trying to buy up the other 1/2 of A2 real estate he didn't own yet. (student slumlord). They brought in Bobby Di. who knew zip about book business -- He was into Hick farms sausages -- replacing Wagner who really knew the retail book experience and tried desperately to manage the place and expansion. When the owners of a business attention wanders then look out! The night I was called in at 3AM by one of them for him to vet his latest drug induced hallucination business idea, and met his bodyguard-dealer (scariest dude in A2) was final straw. I didn't need to work for a looney-tune like that! He wanted to start an internet business selling paintings over the internet, when he was sitting on a goldmine of selling books over same! This was before anyone had ever heard of Bezos or Amazon!

When Borders ran out of cash to fuel expansion, they went to IPO, but when they found out the due diligence that NYSE would require, they realized that one of their drug convictions and jail time would become public knowledge, they fled and sold out in a quickie private sale to K-mart, for a LOT less than was worth....
he then went out to blow a ton of other peoples money on a hare-brained scheme to sell groceries over the Internet! Not realizing that most people LIKE to squeeze the tomatoes before they purchase!
sad all around, but I got out before that calamity!
A fool and his/her money are soon parted.
Posted by propeller-head on February 4, 2014 at 12:21 PM · Report this

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