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.
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)