Regretting the end of Borders

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 didn’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 – that company’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 company’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 – 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, I’d spend an hour or so dropping people into the schedule. It was fun – 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 wasn’t officially a manager. There’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 – the slowest night most weeks – and worked the entire place with just three other employees of my choosing. The most common lineup included Julie, Tom, and Dan – quick-thinking, quick-witted, really efficient workers. I don’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 – 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 – not by – Thomas Pynchon. We didn’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 – 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 – 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 don’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 I’m really sorry to see Borders close.