An obituary of sorts, with apologies for length and nostalgia

The drive along I-35 between Austin and Dallas is among the more tedious stretches of road I know, and I had to see it over and over because I was in school in Austin and my mother’s family is in Dallas.  It was only three and a half hours, but I would get there weary, my eyes tired from the yellow glare of 100-degree sun on burnt grass.
In North Dallas you turn off the Tollway onto Royal Lane if you’re going to what is or at least was the part of town where the Jews of the upper middle class and beyond lived.  My aunt had a half-joke, half superstition that you always saw a Cadillac at the corner of Royal and Hillcrest, and we used to look, and it was always true.I stopped, this one time in maybe 1992, to get gas or maybe just catch my breath before seeing family, at Royal and Preston, and saw a sign for Borders Books & Music, so of course I stopped.  In ways I don’t remember the specifics of, it seemed like a better bookstore than others.  I guess they had something obscure I had been looking for, some Russian literature in the original, god knows what.

After that, I stopped there every trip, either coming into town, or leaving–I would buy myself a little present to make up for the stress of that one merge on the Stemmons where you have exactly no time to get across I-35 and there’s always an unbroken stream of cars to cut across.  I bought some favorite recordings there to play on my CD-player-rigged-through-the-cassette deck: Borkh singing Elektra, the Hagens playing the Janacek quartets.  (This would get damaged in my car and I’d have to wait years to find it again, shadily back in print.  A crazy friend begged me for it and I refused, then relented, then he relented, so I kept it.)

After I graduated from college, I was downwardly mobile with a vengenace.  Who knows what my parents thought.  I wanted to do what people do in Austin: get a job that is as undemanding as possible and enjoy my life.  I got a terrible temp job at EDS and then worked at Tower in the classical room for a few months and then got hired at Borders for six bucks an hour.

You’ll pardon me if I go on some, I hope.  This is my little obituary for Borders.  Who gives a fuck about corporations of course, only…

You had to take a book test back then, and the employees had a certain gauche pride in this.  I took the test and got the job, and though I quickly realized that working in a bookstore is still retail, and so, furiously dull, I stayed a year, only leaving after a sort of typical petty skirmish with authority.  (My supervisor gave me a brutal and, still I’d say, unfair review, at the heart of which was the truth: that I couldn’t get enthusiastic about working a cash register or making dashing endcaps.  You could milk some satisfaction from the occasions when you knew exactly what a customer wanted or made a brilliant recommendation, but in the end, you were there to put things in order on shelves, and I wasn’t especially gung ho about it.)

Our awful, humorless manager was diligent in enforcing a Customer is King ethos, but we had a few laughs at the expense of some of them in private, the north Austin housewives who came in and asked for the section on angels–one was overheard to say “these books are ok, but I was hoping for something a little more….practical.”  It was a tacky, suburban part of Austin.  A dazed, stepford customer looked at her checkbook, then looked at me, then said in High Texan with too many syllables, “Where am I?”  We had a list of things we weren’t allowed to say to customers on the back of a door.  “Yanni is not classical music.”  People came in and said “oh I would NEVER shop at Barnes & Noble,” and we’d blink at them, wondering if they were expecting a parade for their loyalty; and yet, it was a better store than Barnes & Noble, and we took pride in that.

But so there’s no way around it: it was a great year of my life.  The book test meant that people dorky enough to want to work at a store that gave a book test were your coworkers.  We were awfully fond of one another and spent absurd amounts of time together, closing the store at 11 and reporting immediately to Trudy’s or the Draught Horse.  I worked that late shift so I could go out with my dear friends until 1 or 2, fall asleep at 3, awake at noon, and go to work.  Even without the gauzy lens of fifteen years past, it felt decadent.

(The one time in my life I ever stole anything was from Borders.  What,  I don’t think they’re going to press charges now.  Another skirmish with authority left me furious and I decided I was owed a book.  I stole a copy of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation that I would carry with me on the trip I took after quitting, a trip to New York where I saw Stockard Channing, enthralling but miscast as Regina in The Little Foxes.  I went backstage and had her sign my copy of the play, shuddering later that I had asked to be photographed with her and actually put my hand awkwardly on her back.  I stopped short of telling her the story of the book she was signing.)

I still know those people, or some of them.  I think of the rest, still, and remember standing at the cash register with them or eating horrible stale bagels and muffin caps, talking about books sometimes, or talking about each other, as we’d become the people in each other’s lives to some large extent.  One is among my closest friends still.  One I ran into, living a block from me in Park Slope.  One I was very fond of and kept up with until she moved to Boston by train (we shared the fear of flying) to be with someone she had met online, stopping for literally two minutes to say hello on the train platform in Chicago before she got on the next train.

So those were the best days, really, even if it was a lousy job in the ways you’d expect.  RIP Borders.


[addendum at 8:07 a.m.: I wrote this in, no kidding, the middle of the night, so caveat lector w/r/t possible complete incoherence.]

9 responses to “An obituary of sorts, with apologies for length and nostalgia”

  1. Rachel says:

    “Death, Shopping.” So apt.

    I had a Borders gift card kicking around and spent it this weekend, just in case the store wasn’t around next weekend. (Scored some great deals–Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and Roz Chast’s Theories of Everything were all only $6.00 in hardcover! But I digress.)

    Mister Smearcase, I could have written this exact post, or at least a version of it. Midway through grad school I quit a job as a valet/bellman in downtown Chicago to go to work at Borders in Evanston. It seemed a lot more mellow, plus no uniform, plus I could ride my bike. Everyone who worked there was an aspiring something-else: opera singer, indie rocker, sketch comedian. The barista periodically disappeared for weeks at a time to go on tour.

    We were all up in each other’s drama. I remember listening to Elliott Smith in the back room, watching my co-worker Doug snort some heroin before his shift and say, “So I’m thinking of moving to Williamsburg.” I had not yet heard of Williamsburg. It was 1997.

    In many ways the job sucked, but I loved sorting and shelving and handling all that paper, which satisfied some weird atavistic organizational urge in me.

    All-time greatest customer:

    Q: Where is your non-fiction section?
    A: We have a lot of non-fiction–history, reference, sports….can I help you find something specific?
    Q: Yes. It’s called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
    A: …..
    Q: So, do you have it?
    A: Um, yeah. It’s over here in science…fiction.

  2. LP says:

    I, too, am incredibly bummed to see Borders give up the ghost. They closed all the LA Borderses a couple of months ago, and driving by the empty shell of the giant Hollywood store still chokes me up. How long can B&N last? And when they’re gone, will there be no more generations who experience the joy of browsing around thousands of real, actual, physical books?

    I rue this development even though my own experience of working in a bookstore was rather uninspired. More than 20 years ago, I worked for about 2 months in a Waldenbooks in suburban Maryland. I was so thrilled to get the job, and imagined recommending books I’d just devoured in my college literature classes to masses of curious readers. What I actually did was point out, repeatedly, where the Silhouette romances were located. Damn, we sold a lot of those.

  3. AWB says:

    Like everyone, I also spent a year working at Borders in Cleveland. I was hired to work in the coffee bar part, but I got bored, so whenever possible, I’d try to get a shift stocking shelves.

    Good God, I loved stocking shelves. It combines my love of the alphabet with my pleasure at making things fit together very tightly and evenly. I still shelve my books that way at home, with all the spines exactly flush to the edge of the shelf.

    Borders was also where I learned one of the great things about working for a big company. I had previously worked in a bunch of little locally-owned coffee shops for about seven years, and they were run either by petty tyrants who hate the customers or by egg-shaped dead-eyed men who are too busy getting blowjobs from counter girls to do the accounting. I love the idea of small business and local coffee shops, absolutely, but at Borders we had a coherent sexual harassment policy with actually useful training and company policies about non-discrimination and public breastfeeding and whatnot. Borders said in no uncertain terms that you are not allowed to work there if you shame people for being themselves. I really appreciated that.

  4. AWB says:

    I should add that the coffee bar was boring because all people ever ordered was giant cups of slightly coffee-flavored slushy from the machine, and “kid’s meal,” which meant waiting 15 minutes for frozen chicken nuggets to heat up in the toaster. There was one ancient Italian guy who would come in and scream at me until I figured out how to make an espresso to his standards, but other than that, the coffee bar was supremely unchallenging.

  5. Tim says:

    I greatly appreciate your nostalgia, Mr. Smearcase, for a poorly-paying post-college job that came with great camaraderie (not to mention after-hours drinking). My similar experience was at The Medici in Chicago, when it was closer to the lake, between Blackstone and Harper (if memory and Google Maps serve).

    I have mixed feelings, however, about the demise of Borders (sorry to rain on the party a wee spot, but, well, it’s my role sometimes (okay, often)). I hate to see *any* bookstore go out of business, but it seems to me that up their comeuppance has come. When Borders started franchising in a big way, it seemed the corporation’s clear modus operandi to put a store close to a successful local bookstore (ensuring that there was a market for books there) and then undercut the competition with its ability to buy books at a deeper discount, driving the locals out of business.

    This happened to a much-beloved (but not by me — smiley face) locally-owned store in Santa Barbara (where I lived in the mid-90s) by the name of The Earthling. I had my issues with that store — one bookcase of philosophy and six of new age — but it was still, you know, not corporate. While Borders did not go big when it came to selling books on the web to compete with Amazon, B&N did, and that model seems to have won out (for the time being). Yes, Borders has provided many, many people with jobs (and happy memories of jobs) and places to go and shop for books and hang out in a coffeeshop, so I can’t be happy about this development, but they also ran a lot of little stores out of business over the years. Now a mistake they made years ago has brought on their demise. Cela est des affaires, non?

  6. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Right, browsing is what will be missed. I don’t fetishize the physical object of the book much (though I suppose you’ll pry my harback of Birds of America from my cold, dead fingers…that book got me through a lot) but I do like walking around, looking at things. It was pointed out to me recently that it’s strange for someone with a billion great old opera recordings not to have a stereo, but I think what happened, other than mp3s, is that my love died a little when Tower Records went away. Talk about an awful company, but you’d go there after/before stuff at Lincoln Center, you’d wander, you’d get ideas.

    I’m glad other folks can relate and I complete get Tim’s failure to nostalge. Btw, Tim, is this to say that you worked at the Med on 53rd? I wonder when…I have friends that worked there. I have such a fun memory of a late dinner there on my first trip to Chicago as an adult.

  7. Tim says:

    Thank you for being kind to me as I turned a bright light on Borders’ past practices during your emotionally-sensitive time, FPS. After I wrote my comment I started thinking that everyone would take me for a cad, especially when over 10,000 people have lost their jobs.

    Alas, no, I didn’t work at Medici on 53rd. When I was in Hyde Park there were two Medicis, one on 53rd and one on 57th in a location about 2 blocks east of the current one.

  8. Dave says:

    This was a great post, F.P.

    It has something in common with Mr. Tan’s post about working in a Virgin Megastore (linked for those who haven’t already read it).

  9. k-sky says:

    Give us the quiz!