Barnes & Noble can suck it: Thoughts from a former Borders employee

My favorite place on the planet used to be my job. I got to spend all day surrounded by books, authors, bibliophiles and book reviews. It was my job to read and become familiar with all the latest titles. I could take advance-copy promo books home, and as long as we had more than one copy and it wasn’t a mass-market paperback, I could borrow any book I wanted; I essentially had my own private library.

For a little over four years, I was a bookseller at Borders. I worked at two different stores in two different cities, and in each case, I loved and eagerly anticipated going to work. “Want to work the opening shift New Year’s Day?” my boss would ask. “YES!” I would answer, even though I was freshly 21, and working the opening shift would cut into my New Year’s Eve festivities. I didn’t care. I loved my job, and, most of all, I loved the people I worked with because, like me, they loved books. We were all there for the books.

And now Borders is bankrupt and on the brink of closing 400 stores and eliminating almost 11,000 jobs. Alas, poor Yorick.

When I was applying for jobs to keep me financially solvent during my undergraduate years, I knew I wanted to work at Borders. At that time, Barnes & Noble was creeping up their web presence and getting bigger, but I didn’t want to work there. Whenever I’ve walked into a B&N, nine times out of 10, the person “helping” me would know next to nothing about books, authors or literature — all they’d know is what Oprah or the employee newsletter told them.

That’s what I loved so much about Borders: While B&N was the bookstore for the casual reader, Borders was the bookstore for the book lover. Borders catered to the consumer who had no more room on her bookshelf. The guy who blew his last paycheck on the complete works of William Faulkner. The teenager who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and saved up her babysitting money for Tender is the Night.

Before I ever worked at Borders, I remember walking into the huge store in Saratoga, N.Y., and having a discussion with an employee about the debate within the literary community over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. When I began working at a different store near my home in 2006, I had these same discussions with my co-workers on the floor and during our breaks: Why do people keep flipping out over Twilight? What’s the literary merit in Jodi Picoult novels? We knew Water for Elephants was going to be huge before it was. We knew the obscure but amazing titles that weren’t on the bestseller list but should have been.

One day, a woman walked in and said she was looking for the perfect book for her teenage granddaughter who loved to write and was having a hard time at school (you know, mean girls and Gretchen Wieners). She said the people at B&N had recommended the Gossip Girl series, and it was all I could do to keep my jaw from flying open, thinking, “Yes, let’s give the girl having a hard time with mean girls a dozen books all about mean girls.” I led her to Sloppy Firsts, the first book in Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series, about a girl who is also having a hard time dealing with the mean girls in high school who used to be her friends. The woman looked at me like I was a gift from William Shakespeare himself. She came back the next week for the other three books — her granddaughter just loved them, and they seemed to perk her up. I told her that I hoped her granddaughter found as much of a friend in Jessica Darling as I did.

This is why it’s sad that Borders is liquidating and going out of business. Yes, Borders made mistakes. They didn’t take full advantage of the Internet nor the e-reader, but while B&N and Amazon were building online empires, we were building relationships with our customers — and with books. It’s these relationships that kept Borders plugging along as B&N and Amazon cornered the market on high-tech gadgets. Borders tried to fix this by having us push “key items” (books the company picked for us to sell) and upsell in the cafe and at the register. It was too little too late. Honestly, my former co-workers and I are astounded Borders lasted as long as it did — we must have been doing something right.

So while Borders may have been doomed from the moment Amazon said “Kindle,” we’ll always remember Borders as a friend. A place where we could discuss literature and meet new people who shared our literary interests. Borders became the Jessica Darling of  my post-high school life, and I’m sad to see it go, but I’m immensely proud to have been a part of a bookstore that was there for the books. If books were a band, Borders would be the groupie while B&N would be the dude in the back only there to hear the big radio hit and leave.

And so we beat on, like boats against the current…

R.I.P. Borders (1971-2011)

Photo by Babble

Caitlin Tremblay I work at Thomson Reuters in NYC and I'm a 2011 graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. I could live off of Ring Pops and cucumbers and I still pay for music. I think tattoos, Chuck Klosterman, Rolling Stone, red pens, day planners and Shakespeare are rad. You can find me on Twitter (@CTrembz).

View all posts by Caitlin Tremblay

14 Responses to “Barnes & Noble can suck it: Thoughts from a former Borders employee”

  1. HopefulLeigh

    This is exactly why I loved going to Borders! And also why I enjoyed my own bookstore-working experience back in the day. Nothing beats the satisfaction of matching a customer with the perfect book. Book lovers unite!

  2. Michael

    Thank you for this eloquent and absolutely spot-on eulogy to the only big box store worth patronizing. I worked in ICS for a year and a half, leaving only when our store (217—and I assure you the Stephen King reference was never lost on me) was forced to close for a few months due to a flood. Had said closure never occurred, I likely would have stayed until the bitter end. I adored my coworkers and my work atmosphere, despite the hellish 5 to 2 shift that I endured day after day. You are correct in that our customers were among the most colorful and interesting that one could find anywhere; even those in search of “that book with a brown cover that I saw on TV yesterday” made for memorable stories at the very least. B&N has always exuded a vibe of middlebrow pretension, while Borders fulfilled the role of the one girl at your high school who was down with Siouxsie & the Banshees. Its absence will leave a gaping hole in the market, and I will always cherish my time there.

  3. Ken McCullagh

    WELL WRITTEN! There was a reason why I choose to apply @ BORDERS instead of B&N back in 1998… and a reason why I stayed happily employed there for 10 years… it was ALL ABOUT THE BOOKS! BORDERS (and ALL bookstores) will be greatly missed.

  4. Kate Schwab

    Beautifully written – thanks. When I started at Borders Indianapolis in 1988, at the fourth store in the Tom-and-Louis-Borders-owned “chain,” I literally threw away my resume. And as I trained new employees in new Borders stores around the country (including you, Ken McCullagh!), I proudly told them that, as part of my “Borders Bio.” I miss that life, but I’m so glad Borders was a part of my life, for more than 20 years…and equally proud that I was part of Borders’ life. That fabulous, wonderful, awesome life.

  5. Carol Meister

    Attention All Borders Customers,
    Please be aware while you are coming into our stores to get great discounts on a store closing, you are dealing with 11,000 hard working, loyal people that are losing their jobs.
    I have been a retail store manager for over 32 years, and I can say without a doubt that Borders was the best company I have ever worked for, and not only am I devastated that we are closing, I do not know how I will be able to even pay bills like rent or the phone bill starting in a few months.
    So please, stop complaining about the length of the lines and that the discounts are not high enough yet, and try to comfort those of us that are still greeting you with a smile and trying to offer you great books.

  6. Rick Derer

    I will especially miss the Borders in Oakbrook Terrace. There were times when it seemed like the center of the community: you could listen to live music and drink a cup of coffee while browsing through the books.

    I will resist the electronic book as long as possible. I already spend way too much time in front of a computer.

    Best of luck to all Borders employees. I predict some of you may be running your own bookstores in the future: there is still is a niche there for the independent bookseller, but it will be tough.

  7. Nicky

    I’ve always thought the number one job of any bookseller was to champion reading. To help people find books they will enjoy so they continue to read their entire life. I’m sorry you feel so differently. As if a casual reader of Picoult were any less of a reader than someone who devours classics? What a silly idea, and how incredibly insulting to readers everywhere. If you had poor experiences at Barnes and Noble, maybe it was your snooty attitude to blame versus the people who were shortchanged by fate in having to deal with you.

  8. A True Book Lover

    This bitter narcissistic work was the exact reason I never set foot in a Borders. This article is based off a handful of experiences from two stores. Quite valid; don’t you think? The fact that the main mean girl, Regina ((you know the one who actually betrayed her best friend and socially exiled her) isn’t mentioned but the supporting role of Gretchen is shows a great inattention to detail and cultural illiteracy. The fact that Shakepear was referenced when referring to a completely different style of book shows regular illiteracy and blatant ignorance to genre. All I take from this is that it was written by an exemployee that doesn’t seem to understand there are many different types of readers. And just because someone enjoys more than the classics doesn’t make them any less of a bibliophile. If all of Borders employees were like this, no wonder it went out of business.


    Borders management screwed up big time, and the author is pissed at B&N? Apparently, Borders didn’t screen its employees for critical thinking. The problem in the bookselling industry wasn’t caused by B&N, but by a little thing called the Internet. And if the author had any idea how many independent booksellers, which were owned and operated by true book lovers, were put out of business by Borders, then she would not be defending Borders. Borders inflicted huge damage on bookstores for years. The fact that they went out of business and B&N is struggling is sweet revenge for all those independent stores owners who lost their livelihood and investments.

    The author should be thankful that there is still any national chain of bookstores. I haven’t patronized any national bookstores chain in decades because they were nothing more than Wal-Marts with amazing marketing that was able to present these assholes and friends of booklovers when, in fact, they destroyed thousands of businesses.

  10. Meh

    I’ll be glad when Barnes and Noble goes the same way. Why? I want smaller independent book stores to be a thing again. Also, I’ve had nothing but trouble when I order from B&N.


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