Books Without Borders
My Life at the World's Dumbest Bookstore Chain
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.
This story has been corrected since its original publication to clarify the circumstances of the Borders employee who died of a heart attack.