In spring 1993, when I was living just outside Philadelphia, I quit a fulltime teaching job even though I had no clear plan what I would do next.
I had saved a little money, so the next step really didnâ€™t matter that much. I spent about six weeks that fall in Europe, and began looking around hard for jobs when I got back to Philly.
I quickly landed a gig at a brand new Basset bookstore in Chestnut Hill. That was part of the Walden Books chain â€“ that companyâ€™s stab at the new model of a book superstore. But things were never quite right, in part because the managers had their main experience from smaller stores and the companyâ€™s inventory system simply was no match for the sheer size of the two-story building.
Even once we got fully up and running, we had empty shelves and a variety of other problems.
I had no interest in a managerial position, but I was nevertheless making around $10 an hour â€“ pretty good in those days for retail work and easily enough money to keep me afloat indefinitely. I spent my fair share of time working the cash register, but even there I was surrounded with smart, interesting coworkers and customers. Given my academic background and my teaching experience, I soon began spending tons of time at the information desk.
And the next thing I knew, I was making the schedule for the couple of dozen employees. The managers had trouble getting it right. So, while I was on the clock one day each week, Iâ€™d spend an hour or so dropping people into the schedule. It was fun â€“ I could quickly assess where the shifts were weak and where they were strong and arrange the staff accordingly.
Somewhere along the line, I started closing the store three nights a week, although I still wasnâ€™t officially a manager. Thereâ€™s something funny about a $10/hour employee sitting around counting $10,000 or more in cash each night. I preferred those later shifts and the management preferred not to work them.
I would always close on Sunday nights â€“ the slowest night most weeks â€“ and worked the entire place with just three other employees of my choosing. The most common lineup included Julie, Tom, and Dan â€“ quick-thinking, quick-witted, really efficient workers. I donâ€™t know what any of them are up to these days.
And after we had been open for less than a year, all the Bassets turned to Borders. Kmart, the parent of Walden Books, had acquired Borders in 1992.
Aside from me snapping (kind of ugly) and telling off a Borders trainer who kept giving us bad advice about shelving, the transition went well â€“ and it continued to go well despite the stressed out managers who had never in their lives experienced so much business.
I made a great friend of someone who came in one night looking for books about â€“ not by â€“ Thomas Pynchon. We didnâ€™t have any at the store, but I had published an article about Pynchon, so I was ready for that conversation.
I was introduced to so many different books â€“ I held so many different ones in my hands that I could tell something about them by their weight, their feel. Marooned way out there in Chestnut Hill, we were never as hip as the center city Borders â€“ Martin Amis could go to that store but not ours. Still, it was an oasis of calm and intelligence in an otherwise unwieldy city.
I eventually picked up a part-time teaching gig at Germantown Friends School, and then I started looking around for new jobs outside of Philly. I loved working at Borders, but I turned 30 while I was there. It was hardly a forever job. But what is?
I gave up my job in early summer 1995. I donâ€™t remember my last day or even last week. Who was the last person I helped? What was the last book I shelved?
I think it was just before that time when I filled a small display table with some great fiction by writers from New Zealand and Australia. None of them sold.
Largely because of the spot-on inventory system, Borders seemed so much better than Barnes and Noble, but within a few years it became clear that B&N was making better corporate decisions. The announcement this that Borders stores are being liquidated comes as no surprise.
And I obviously recognize understand the complaints of those who think corporate stores like Borders did horrible damage to the independents.
But Iâ€™m really sorry to see Borders close.