A year after the chain closed, a writer who met his wife working there hopes bookstores still exist for his new son
The training supervisor at Borders – a feminist poet with red hair who spoke in slacker tone – gave a tour of the store, pointing out what books were shelved where. I knew the store well. Since finishing college and moving back in with my parents, I visited daily. I wrote poems and short stories in the cafe, and envisioned where my own novel, if I ever wrote one, would one day be shelved.
“This,” said the training supervisor turning a corner in the store, “is where the computer books are.” She pointed at a girl who wore all black and stood on a wooden ladder, a large paperback in one hand. “And this is Melanie, who also just started.”
Melanie and I completed our entire week-long training session together. We were trained on everything from learning the register, to efficiently sorting books when they came off the truck, to properly inputting special orders on an outdated computer with an outdated program. The special orders day I remember fondly. I was sick and sneezed often into my shirtsleeve. Somehow, at the time, I thought she didn’t notice and I was playing it cool. In retrospect, I was a mess.
It took several weeks until our first date – a couples affair at Red Lobster that concluded by being invited back by the other couple for a dip in their hot tub. I didn’t have a bathing suit, and the other guy, a cyclist named Willem, offered his size 26-waist swimsuit. They barely fit, and, gut sucked in, I leaped into the water. Melanie held my hand over a jet of warm bubbles.
It sounds ridiculous to say we fell in love at Borders, but we did. I left notes in Melanie’s locker that listed a title and page number and she’d find the book (I used Anne Sexton’s “Love Poems” often) and open to the poem I had previously found for her. We bought each other books with our store discount. We drank cups of free coffee and stocked books side by side.
There were signs then, that I didn’t pick up on, that the company had problems. During my lunch break, I’d skim the corporate newsletter and read about a new CEO, a new vice president and a new sales director. Borders constantly, and erratically, introduced new store policies, new marketing layouts, and specifically the disastrous Borders Rewards Card.
As my relationship with Melanie grew, the changes at Borders continued; each was for the worst. One change that I will detail in a moment prompted Melanie to quit. To this day I don’t blame her. When it happened, I was impressed that someone could, and did, stick to their beliefs and limits about what an employee would put up with.
As sales decreased annually beginning in 2006, with the company losing as much as a billion dollars over the next four years, executives sought more changes. Soon, we were told to wear only khakis, tattoos would need to be covered, no piercings could be visible, and shirts had to be tucked in and contain no offensive language. The DVD section expanded, the literature section shrank.
Shortly after the release of the Borders Rewards Card, we were all given headsets, which would enable us to “communicate more efficiently.” The changes came in an ugly wave: the clothing, the loyalty card, the headsets. If you took away the books, we appeared to be working at the Gap. What made Borders interesting, what Melanie and I loved about it and what drew us toward it, was quickly erased.
Think about this: One of the assistant managers once told me that when he began at Borders, nearly 20 years before I was hired, the store gave a Book Test to potential employees. You were asked what books you were currently reading, what your favorite book was and why, and even given a multiple-choice test on where books would be shelved. You had to be someone who loved books in order to get hired.
The headset is why Melanie quit. She said what we all thought: It was degrading and ridiculous. Our store was tiny. The store’s opposite corners could be walked to and fro in less than 30 seconds. I’m still proud of Melanie for quitting – something I couldn’t do. I shamefully wore the headset into which I spoke, “Please bring out more Harry Potter,” each day.
Late last July, the first Borders stores began shutting their doors. Melanie and I went to two stores within driving distance for clearance sales, but we couldn’t go to the store where we met. I still regret not buying one of the cafe’s leather chairs.
We’re expecting our first child in September. The reality – both exciting and terrifying – of bringing a child into this world brings up many obvious and important concerns, but one I’ve thought several times (other than how to diaper quickly and effectively) is this: Will bookstores exist when my son is old enough to read this essay? Ten years ago this question would be deemed dramatic and even absurd, but now the possibility seems like a bleak reality. I want my son to feel the magic I felt in bookstores. I want him to fall in love with authors like I did and get that night-before Tuesday excitement of a new book by your favorite author being published. All of us can agree that clicking pre-order on a Web page is inexpensive and convenient, but it lacks true excitement.
One of my favorite bookstores is St. Marks in New York’s East Village. It’s a bookstore that feels alive with the intimate, electric connection between customer, book and bookseller. (Of course, it too is looking for a new, smaller home.) I miss this everyday feeling that I had while working at Borders. I want to share this feeling.
Seeing Borders fail was odd for me because on one hand it was a large and ugly corporation, and on the other hand, a place where I loved books and met Melanie. We have a son on the way. Let us all meet in bookstores.
Shane Jones lives in Albany, N.Y. Penguin will publish his latest novel, "Daniel Fights a Hurricane," in August. More Shane Jones.
More Related Stories
- San Francisco Giant Jeremy Affeldt apologizes for homophobic past
- Wall Street firm's "Golden Pitchbook" is totally sexist, full of lies
- Tornado survivor to Wolf Blitzer: Sorry, I'm an atheist. I don't have to thank the Lord
- Federal court strikes down Arizona abortion ban
- I'm not achieving my dreams!
- The most popular Tumblr porn
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Snapchat is secretly storing your photos
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Facebook's hate speech problem
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- When my home was destroyed
- Okla. mother's tearful reunion with her 8-year-old son
- New campaign compares gun control to anti-LGBT discrimination
- Study: Salt Lake City is gay parenting capital of the U.S.
- You are less beautiful than you think
- "Ghetto" tour lets you gawk at New York's poor
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Watch: Family emerges from storm shelter after tornado
- Okla. tornado survivor reunited with dog trapped in rubble live on camera
- My miscarriages made me question being pro-choice
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11