Earlier this year, Borders Group Inc filed for bankruptcy. After a July 2011 deadline came and went without a buyer for the national book retailer, the company began liquidating its retail chain and closing up stores, with the last of them scheduled to shut down by the end of this month. When that happens, Borders will be no more.
Nearly a decade. That’s how long I worked for the Borders Group Inc. I transitioned to one of the Waldenbooks from a larger multimedia/book company and it was quite a shock. Antiquated registers and outdated search systems were the norm. But one thing the company had was passion. Passion for books and authors. New employees were quizzed about their book knowledge and any interview turned into a discussion of favorite novels and writers. I loved it, really loved it. Every three or four months there was a conference with authors and publishers speaking, eating, and sometimes even drinking with us. I have Borders to thank for letting me meet some of my favorite authors like Jim Butcher and Vince Flynn. I actually got to have dinner with dozens of writers over the years, many of them I had never heard of but that didn’t stop me from enjoying their company. I got to have a quiet one-on-one conversation with Charlaine Harris regarding her newest novel. This is before I had ever heard of Sookie Stackhouse of True Blood fame, way back when the series was known as The Southern Vampire series. I met and befriended the publisher for George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, even got on the advanced reader list for them, too. Oh, those were the days.
But those days ended. It was 2005 when I first started seeing changes, not for the better, might I add. Fewer conferences and far fewer writers in attendance, more conference calls berating under-performing stores (not mine, mind you), and an overall bleaker outlook from upper management. It was also about this time that Borders started changing CEOs almost annually, which never lends itself to a sense of continuity.
New initiatives would start and end before any real data could be gleaned from them. Simple things such as new carpet and paint were obviously decent ideas to freshen the looks, but there were other things like “make books” that caused major morale issues. “Make books” were books picked by the buyers in Ann Arbor that every bookseller was told to forcefully sell to each and every customer that walked through the doors. Stores and sellers were graded and documented based on their sales of these books. While the books would change every six weeks or so, the culture of oppression and threat of unemployment always loomed overhead. Turns out the idea behind them was to prove to publishers that we were a viable company and could create bestselling novels at will. All it really did at store level was breed resentment. It was common to have a district manager call three or four times a day inquiring about these books and how we would increase the sales of them. It was relentless…all because the current CEO was convinced he could dictate what customers would buy. That’s what you get for hiring a former grocery store CEO to run a book chain, right?
Throughout all this, I met some of the best people in the business. Men and women who had worked for the company long before Borders bought out Waldenbooks, so much knowledge there…it was a true pleasure to get to know them. Just as it was a pleasure (most of the time) to get to know our customers. I befriended quite a few of them, it was nice to share that passion with others. I could, of course, talk all day about some of the horrible ones like The Dickster, Magazine Nazi, or any of the kids that would come in and destroy the tattoo magazines…but I won’t. Instead, I like to remember the great ones, including the ones that became employees and friends. Hell, I had dinner with two of them yesterday just to catch up and talk about the good old days.
But Borders dropped the ball. You can blame e-readers or Amazon but, truth is, they did it to themselves. Borders partnered with Amazon instead of starting its own website. Huge mistake as all it did was train more people to shop on Amazon. Borders waited until 2007 to create an actual working site and waited another two years to add ebooks to it. When they finally embraced the Kobo reader as its machine, the end was in sight. Amazon’s Kindle and all of its competitors were already fully saturated in the market and nothing BGI could do had any effect at all.
It was during this time that longtime upper management were “leaving” the company to “pursue” other interests. I’m talking about folks that had worked for Waldenbooks for thirty or forty years. Based on the way each CEO would hire in his chums and cronies, it was obvious that these original Waldens folk were being run off to create open positions. So many good people were forced out but, luckily, many of them found jobs with other book companies.
With the loss of virtually everyone with book savvy at the home offices, Borders, Waldenbooks, and Brentano’s began carrying more random items like glitter balls, wind-up toys, and an ever-growing amount of Paperchase goods. Paperchase was originally a British company that created a wide variety of bags, journals, cards, and school supplies. Borders acquired that mess in the mid 2000s and proceeded to flood every store with a crap-ton of product that almost never sold. A huge wound that kept on bleeding until they finally ditched it in 2010. Too little, too late.
For all the negative feelings I have towards Borders, they will be missed. It’s one less place where people can go to find knowledge and entertainment in the same place. Fewer children will discover new books on a random mall trip. Fewer people will read aimlessly in the aisles. And fewer jobs.
My advice is this: if you have a favorite bookstore, then shop there. Don’t worry about saving fifty cents by ordering online. Go in, talk to people, support the stores. If you don’t like the big chains, fine…there are plenty of small ones out there. My first job was in a mom and pop bookstore/comic shop. They need your business and we need their shops. It’s a fair trade.
For the record, I miss my bookstore and my minions every day. It was six months this summer since I closed the doors for the last time. January 22, 2011 is a dark day in my history.
When the last Borders finally shuts the doors at the end of this month, it will be a dark day for us all.