Sunday, September 18, 2011

Goodbye Borders Books And Thanks For The Memories: 1971-2011

Today, the final remaining Borders bookstores closed their doors for the last time. Between Waldenbooks and Borders, I spent ten years with the company and met and worked with hundreds of amazing people all across the country. I made some of my best friends as a result of the Borders connection. For that alone, I owe the company a debt. Well, that and the dozen pens, markers, box cutters, and staplers that I managed to transfer from one office to another and from the stores to my home. It was all unwitting, I assure you.

Despite the void the disappearance of Borders will create for booksellers, book lovers, and book makers, we still have the stories. The stories in the books we picked up at the stores (thanks to the discount, the long-defunct book credit, and the ARCs). The stories about co-workers: friends found and lost, ideas shared and debated, policies argued and ignored, lovers new and old. The stories about customers which, frankly, are endless and unbelievable unless you were there. These stories will sustain us and we will continue to share them, telling and retelling, exaggerating and explaining. We were there for something extraordinary. Pass it on.

And, so, here are a few stories--my little tribute--gathered from my own collection of fine bookstores (there were eight in all, not including the five store openings [sorts] that I did). I hope they give you a glimpse of the magic of these places.

My first Borders was store #135 in Tulsa, OK. I was a graduate student and needed a summer gig. I had worked for the company before and pretty much blew away the competition on the infamous Book and Music Test. It's amazing how valuable years of college and grad school education used to be at Borders. Like many Borders, #135 was special. Do we all say that about our first? The team was amazing, and the community was genuinely excited for us to be there. In Oklahoma, we were a liberal safe space for many people. I remember once being in the men's restroom going about my business at the urinal, when in the corner of my eye I saw movement. Now, I've always had excellent peripheral vision, and it served me well this day. Emerging from the space between the wall and the bathroom stall divider was a small mirror. I guess I was unknowingly participating in the day's show. I kept my calm, though. I'm not easily flustered (or wasn't in those halcyon days) and probably more forgiving for this particular transgression because I'm gay and happened to be studying queer theory as part of my Ph.D. studies. Lucky kid. I finished, stepped back to wash my hands, then addressed the supposedly empty bathroom, "You know, you might want to be a little more careful next time. Some people might not be as understanding as me." Then I left and entertained the guys with my tale.

My second store was #264 which we lovingly called Tulsa 2. It was my first Borders sort and I knew the store inside and out. This poor store had good times and bad. Beginning with the Native American blessing (or curse?), we struggled a bit as the planned development around us never seemed to materialize. Add to this a divisive General Manager who played favorites but with everyone so you never really knew where you stood at any given moment and we had a recipe for drama! Still, what a store. I can think of stories about the lead bookseller who played devil-summoning music after the store closed, the Music Manager who was the purest embodiment of a female drag queen I've ever seen (yes, female. She was performing drag queen. It was so meta.), the woman who was the horse masseuse who also militantly shelved the literature section, and my best friend whom I convinced to moved to Tulsa to take a job running the back office and often had to wave her hands wildly in the air to trigger her office light's motion-detector which had been conveniently placed behind a bookshelf and out of the line of sight where she worked (she was convinced there was film of her flailing around in the dark with the lights suddenly coming on because her office had a security camera). These were good times. I also met easily one of the best managers the company produced--Dan. He ran the cafe with humor and organization. He went on to manage his own stores and likely could have run a region. But, Borders rarely recognized such talent. Dan managed to staff his cafe with the cutest bunch of short-haired lesbians you will ever find in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were all funny, smart, and good at their jobs. Then there was the young man named Will. He was funny--in his way. I think I remember Dan or Shannon telling the story about walking into the back of the cafe and finding Will doing karate moves. I'm sure the customers waiting for their lattes didn't mind. Ultimately, Will was undone by a slice of cheese. One day, as a result of a tummy ache and a call to his mom, Will ate a slice of cheese without paying for it. His mom said it would help. Loss Prevention took a different stance and Will was terminated. Don't cry, though. It was really for the best.

After Tulsa, I moved to Washington state. Tukwila, Seattle, and Bellevue comprised my three-pronged attack on the community. In Tukwila, I remember Char, the lead bookseller, who managed to squeeze more smoke breaks out of a day than seems temporally possible and who still knew the store better than anyone else. I also think of Jack and Doug in the music department. She and he were into the Smiths and we bonded--but not immediately. Shortly after I started working in Tukwila, I remember passing Doug on my way to the bathroom (I swear all my best stories are NOT bathroom related). I was carrying my toothbrush and Doug made some remark about it. I paused, looked at him (probably judgingly) and said, "Yes, I believe it a little thing called oral hygiene." Then I proceeded to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Doug told me later when we knew each other better that he had told some of his co-workers that he had just been dissed by the new manager about not brushing his teeth. I wish I could tell you that was the meanest thing I did while I worked there.

Store #66 in downtown Seattle was literally miles away from Tukwila but figuratively a million light years away in terms of culture and clientele. And I loved it. For five months the pace and the insanity energized me. I don't think any other store ever had that kind of feeling. It was maddeningly magical. And, I was lucky enough to forge an amazing relationship with my former boss and always friend Renee. I even got to run the store for a month when she went to the UK for Borders. You remember that, don't you, Renee? It was the one month the store made plan. Ha ha. I remember once having to tell a woman not to bring her bird into the store: she was simply carrying it tucked inside her coat. I think she told me the bird was cold. I remember chasing a shoplifter onto the street and around the corner. He dropped a few CDs to distract me. And I remember the day I had a frantic customer knock on the office door. I opened it and listened to his tale of a hypodermic needle loose in the bathroom. (Yes, it's ANOTHER bathroom story!) I, jadedly, grabbed the biohazard/sharps container and walked over to the men's room. This bathroom had seen its fair share of horrors. Just before I started, it had been set on fire by a junkie, so I didn't expect much to come of this little incident. To my surprise, I found the needle stuck in the hand dryer, propped in the part of the blower that you use to redirect the air from your hands to your face. Even I was shocked. I guess I should have been a little nicer to that customer and offered him a free coffee or something.

Bellevue, the first store I ran as the General Manager, was a three-story paean to books, music, and movies in the area's premiere shopping mall. And, for some reason, it was predestined for failure. Still, we worked hard. And we had some success. The company's former president, Tami Heim, twice remarked that we had the best smelling restrooms, and this woman visited a LOT of stores. So, we smelled good. It was something. We also had a nightmarish Regional Director who probably didn't care how the bathrooms smelled. As far as I could tell, she didn't care about much. During one of her visits to the store, I proudly presented the previous month's sales data. We had beaten our plan. Her response, in front of my management team, was, "Yeah, but the store's still going to lose a million dollars this year." Inspiring, no? After this, receiving a section sign that read "STATIONARY" instead of "STATIONERY" seemed a little less pressing. RIP Bellevue.

From there, I travelled to San Francisco and worked in the Union Square store. I met David Sedaris and Eddie Izzard at this store. I worked during Christmas when the store sold over $100,000 in books, music, and DVDs every day for a week. Yes, Virginia, people used to buy books and music. I also got to watch a pants-less man casually make his way from the periodicals section to the escalator. Standing at the second floor information desk and watching a naked butt slowly descend to the first floor of the store was oddly poetic. Cheers #57.

Finally, I ended up in Hawaii. Didn't everyone want to work at a Hawaiian store? Didn't I? And suddenly I was. And, to tell the truth, it was just about as amazing as we all thought it would be. When I arrived at store #206 in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, I was a pale San Franciscan who didn't know the difference between "mauka" and "makai." I also didn't have a car of my own. After having a rental for a month (paid for by Borders--thanks!) and then trying unsuccessfully to buy a car twice from a man who must have been certifiable and/or playing a trick on the haole, I was nearly at my wits' end. I had returned the rental after agreeing to meet the seller at the airport. He never showed. I took a cab back to the store and was a little stunned and unsure about what to do next. I had no friends for hundreds/thousands of miles, I had broken up with my long-term partner a month before, and now I had no wheels. What had I done by moving here?! But, when asked about the car purchase by one of my new employees and after telling her the saga, she didn't hesitate to offer me the use of her second car. Seriously, there was no hesitation. She said it was aloha. I think I may have shed a tear, but I'll deny it if anyone asks. She lent me her car, invited me to Thanksgiving dinner, and introduced me to a culture that still holds a special place in my heart. As a swan song for Borders (I left in 2006), I couldn't have asked for a better tune than a little Hawaiian melody.

When they closed the doors on the Kona store, my friend Kris, the final General Manager of that store, sent me this photo. I had tacked my last lanyard to the wall of my office on my final day. It was my goodbye letter to the store and to my career at Borders. Years later, thanks to Kris, it was still there. She said she didn't have the heart to take it down when they closed the store. I like to think it's still hanging there.

Aloha nui loa, Borders. Your stories are safe with us.

1 comment:

Rachael said...

Yeah, when I heard Borders was throwing in the towel (ironically, from a Barnes & Noble bookseller as he gift wrapped my purchase), I felt so... weird. I admit that I cried a little bit on my way home, and I told Justin it felt like an old boss had died or something. My 3 years there was my favorite job ever, by a somewhat wide margin. I still dream about working there sometimes (that's probably unhealthy, but what are you going to do?).