Without Borders.

Rumors are that Borders will announce Chapter 11 bankruptcy either Monday or Tuesday of this week.  And that’s the best case scenario.  The next couple days could decide whether the entire company goes under, or “only” 200 stores are immediately closed.  How did this happen?  As someone who worked for the chain for many years, there is just too much that needs to be said.  I was only at the store level, not at corporate.  Also, there will be no identifying details in this story.  While I want to tell this story, there is no need to draw specific people or stores into this.  With all that said, lets begin this story of my journey through Borders.

I remember the day I was hired at Borders.  It couldn’t be more exciting for me.  For my entire life, bookstores excited me.  Here was this wealth of knowledge, both classic and brand new.  Not that libraries cant be great, but they cant carry every new book, magazine, DVD, CD, etc like the big bookstores can.  Being a geek, there were endless shelves of material I wanted to buy that moment.  And now I was going to work amongst them.  I quickly moved my way up through the store to levels of full time and responsibilities.  It was exciting to see all of the new books, to dig through the bargain sections for new treasures, and to claim awesome advance reader copies of the books everyone will be buying in a short time.  The people I worked with were a mixture of freaks that should have been doing something better, but had either settled into failure, or were still clawing towards their big break.  But this is not an insult.  This made the cast of sellers amazing.  The knowledge of books, movies and music that one could absorb from listening to these people for even a minute was astounding.  No matter what item in that store a customer picked up, someone was there who knew everything about it and then some.  We would come in early and stay late.  Even crazy times were enjoyable times.  Whether there were competitions for who could put out the most books in a shift (with my come from behind victory of 3 rolling carts put out in 15 minutes).  Or experiencing the craziness of holiday shopping and a shortened staff due to snow storms. (“For the love of God.  If there is anyone within the sound of my voice.  Can you get on a register?!”)  The people I met there are still good friends, and even the people I met through those friends.  This site would not be at the level it is without the help of UnfamousChris, Empire Hardcore, amongst others who I only know because of my time there.  The store felt like a family, even with fights, and every day I felt excited to be there and honored that someone decided I was smart enough to be included there.  Apple may have the Genius name locked up, but we all felt like professors and enjoyed showing off our current knowledge while gaining more.

I left Borders, for more pressing matters going on in life, and returned to the same company yet at a new store.  At first everything seemed fine, as if not a day had gone by since I was last inside a Borders — instead of the near year that it was.  While something seemed amiss, nothing too terrible happened to really alarm anyone.  However then things started to slip.  Huge releases started to not show up on time, if at all.  While every store from Hot Topic to WalMart had the Metallica Death Magnetic CD, it was no where to find in one of the main locations it would be expected.  When it did finally show up, it was at twice the price as any other chains.  This was merely the first of many shipping errors.  The cafe  was next.  Then supplies.  When managers had to make daily trips to the grocery stores to buy toilet paper, because the company had no store budget for such necessities, alarms went off.  Speaking of alarms, for a chain that carries tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise there is no security.  Then the “make books” began.

For non-Borders people let me explain the make books.  At the store level all the employees were told is that this specific book (which changed monthly and included such titles as The Middle Place, The Girls from Ames and City of Thieves among others).  The best of the “among others” would be The Weight of Silence.  Now, I haven’t read the book and cant tell you if it is good or not.  But its about alcoholism, abuse, and two young girls being hurt by all of this.  If this book doesn’t scream feel good light beach read, I don’t know what does.  Which is why out of all the books that fell into this program, this one will be used to make the point.

At a corporate level, Borders was falling behind in payments to publishers.  In a deal, Borders offered to take a random title from the publisher and make it a best seller.  This gave the publisher an unexpected best seller, that other stores would now want, and it allowed Borders a bit of a payment reprieve.  At a store level, all that employees knew was that your managers walked up, shoved a book in your hands, and said you must sell this title to every customer who walks in the door.  No matter who, no matter what they were shopping for, you must sell this book.  The stores even kept track of who sold the books and how many copies were sold.  Write ups were issued for not making goals, thus your job was at stake if you didn’t sell that specific book.

Here are three flaws in this logic.  One, because this book must be sold by every employee to every customer, the customer becomes harassed.  When they walk in the door, when the book seller on the floor asks, and finally at the cash register.  A minimum of three times for every customer.  If there is an alternate store to buy your books, say Barnes and Noble, then any customer who does not want to be harassed will take their business there.  Two, there is no consideration for the customer or their needs.  If a customer is looking for math books, sell them Weight of Silence.  How does it relate to math?  Who cares!  Sell it!  Need a new Spongebob song?  Throw that book on the floor and shove some Silence in their face.  Which takes me to the third point, no other books matter.  If a customer comes in looking for the Walking Dead TV show, and the seller sells them the graphic novels plus World War Z — thus making the store extra money — it doesn’t matter.  It wasn’t the “right” book.  Selling hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise isn’t an accomplishment if the $14 “correct” book was not sold.  The book which can be found for a penny online now because of its inflated worth due to being bought only by being forced into it as opposed to actual interest.

As if this forced selling wasn’t enough, a new edict came down that every employee had to put this in writing.  (This point will narrow down what stores I’m talking about, as it was not company wide, but I still have no details on store, state, names or timeframe.)  Borders was still known for hiring intelligent people.  They must be extremely literate and creative.  Thus anything corporate like this will not be read by the employees in terms of black and white but in gray shades of what could happen.  The company now wanted something like, “I promise to sell 3 of these books every day”.  Now what?  While no one would flat out say it, by writing these goals and signing it, the employee was signing their termination papers.  If the goal was not meant, then the company could fire you instantly in a way that could not be fought — as it is in your  own words.  While no one flat out said that firings could occur, they were mandatory, you could no longer work there without filling one out, and there were no benefits from meeting or exceeding goals.  Thus the only option left is getting canned.  This led to many employees quitting on the spot.

But what of leadership in all of this?  The store managers who should put fears at ease, or at least sympathize and create a united front.  Working in a store that sucks isn’t so bad when you don’t feel alone.  But no.  The managers gave the company line, and there was no room for questions or discussion.  “Nothing is wrong.”  “Just do your job.”  Then they eliminated manager positions.  Then they eliminated supervisor positions.  Then they came for me.  No, I was already gone (on my own terms).  The managers who had been there for years began quitting.  Not for other, better jobs.  They left “for myself”, “to concentrate on my writing”, “to spend time with my kids”.  Because lots of people quit full time jobs that they have years of retirement, benefits and insurance lined up for no future options in the worst recession since the 1930s.  Who wouldn’t quit a salaried job in this economy?!

It is at this point that I had no further communication with my former place of employment.  There is nothing I have to get at Borders.  If I want an e-reader, it will be an iPad.  Any media can be bought online for cheaper than at Borders, even with the shipping.  The coffee is better elsewhere.  And if I want to talk to intelligent people about books, there are other places available with people excited to be there and not book sellers still left at Borders waiting for the repo men to come.

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