It's about 1am as I begin typing this blog post. A few hours before, the Borders I labored at for nearly five years shut down for good. I dropped by a few weeks back, staring at all the giant liquidation sale signs that seemed to take up more room than what was left of the merchandise.
The signs are the worst part. No matter what kind of retail establishment is closing down, the liquidators use the same glaring yellow and red signs to announce their presence. It's the beginning of the end of the store and the jobs of everyone there, and I can't walk into one of those places without feeling like a vulture.
I've had a store shot down from under me before; I even blogged about it. For a retail employee, there is nothing more depressing, more defeating. Even though I knew the store's closing wasn't my fault, I couldn't help but feel in the back of my head that I could have done more to save the store, to save my co-workers' jobs. And I didn't even like most of my co-workers at that job, but it didn't matter. No matter cliched it seemed, we were all a team... a team that lost.
There are a lot of bad retail gigs out there, but by and large, Borders wasn't one of them. There were two great things about Borders: you could borrow books for a couple of weeks, and you were surrounded by employees who were passionate about literature or music or movies. In a way, Borders was Geek Heaven: I could chat up with one co-worker about the Rolling Stones, another about Quentin Tarantino, and still another about Philip Roth in less than an hour. Moreover, those partisans would happily pass along that love of whatever it was to other employees or customers.
The employees didn't kill Borders. No matter how small their paychecks or bad treatment they received from the occasional cranky customer, they were the lifeblood of the company.
No, what killed Borders were the idiocy of the suits. In the 1990s, Borders was riding high. The company was stable; their stock was solid; there was nowhere to go but up. Or, in Borders' case, down. Faced with the rise of amazon.com, Borders apparently decided an online store was too hard and literally said to amazon, "Here, you do it for us." They opened dozens of stores with huge music sections in the late 90s and early 2000s at a time when the music industry had taken a nosedive. Their computerized inventory system was woefully inadequate (they had no real-time inventory, so if you had one copy of a book and it sold, you wouldn't know until the next day). They also made it difficult for managers, who were more knowledgeable of local selling trends, to order extra stock of popular titles. (For instance, when the movie "Garden State" opened in theaters, the soundtrack was a huge surprise hit, but corporate allotted us a whopping two copies to sell, and it took almost two weeks for them to respond to the demand. I could name other examples, but it's late.)
Worst of all were the revolving door of corporate heads, none of whom worked in the book industry, let alone a bookstore. They saw what we sold as just another bunch of widgets and gradually tore down Borders' attributes. We were well-known for wide selections of books and music, so they drastically cut our inventory. We had a reputation of knowledgeable employees, so they decimated payroll. (In 1999, the Borders I worked at had a maximum payroll of over 1700 employee hours. Five years later, when I was hired, payroll was down to around 1100. When I left in 2008, our store had maybe 700 employee hours to use, and I'm sure it was far lower by the time Borders filed for Chapter 11.) Result? Morale collapsed, as did customer service. (If you had been to a Borders in the last year or so, you would have heard phones left to ring forever; nobody was available to answer them.) And although these developments may not have had a huge impact on our drop in sales, it definitely alienated loyal customers who'd sooner get a lobotomy than order books online.
So Borders is dying. And my Borders is dead. The weird thing is, there are two ghost Borders in Evanston now, only a few blocks apart. The old store moved to its present site in 2003, and the owners of the old building never were able to get another client to take over the space. So now Evanston can boast two abandoned properties that were once Borders, empty endcaps spaces, maybe some other remnants of what the building once housed.
Some folks scoff at the end of Borders, claiming (with some accuracy) that the superstore killed off a lot of indie bookstores. To those folks I say: maybe, but screw you anyway. Sure, the indies boasted a lot of personality, great customer service, and were pillars of their neighborhood. But they didn't hire a lot of people. And unless they were huge indie bookstores like Powell's, they didn't offer many benefits to their full-time employees - if they hired full-time employees. Before the decline of the company, Borders offered some decent benefits to their full-timers: medical and dental, life insurance, stock options. Working at an indie bookstore gave you a bit of cachet among your friends (and some serious nerd cred), but Borders offered another possibility: a long-term job and a stable paycheck.
And folks, quit bitching about the big corporate bookstores killing off the indies in the 90s: If Borders and Barnes & Noble hadn't decimated the indies, amazon.com and Wal-Mart would have done the job a few years down the road. It's sad but true.
I offer the following blessing: I wish all past and present Borders employees who endured cranky customers and psychotic homeless people; who walked the customer to the shelf and handed the item to them; who could recommend a great Civil War history book (or knew a coworker who could); who read stories to kids; who volunteered at 4am to build the holiday displays; who shelved in alphabetical order; who went along with seemingly contradictory orders from above; who brewed a damned good cup of coffee; who worked the insanely wonderful midnight Harry Potter release parties; who straightened up the CDs at 11pm; who put out the new product late Monday night or early Tuesday morning; who made working at a bookstore - even an evil corporate bookstore - fun: the best of fortunes in the future.