Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day 1

The Death of a company is often seen as a side effect of market based economics. Company X does it's job well, it's worthy, it lives. If It doesn't, a much deserved death because as we all know economics has no biases besides money and math is math. For many of us trapped atop the dying beast, it becomes something much more. For a company like Borders Books & Music, It's not just a death, it's the end of a retail company that once upon a time, got it. I'm going to posit that Borders isn't dead because of the E-reader, or because Barnes & Noble is better, or because Amazon crushed us with it's massive digital boot.

We died because our leadership stopped getting it.

I started working for Borders in 1997 in Manchester CT. I was one of a billion staff members at the store and i had just come from Barnes & Noble where i had a very negative experience. I was well positioned to love Borders. When i arrived they treated me with respect "wear what you want, as long as it's not offensive". Really, Wow. At B&N i had to wear a shirt and tie to sell people Nora Roberts books. My first day i worked with a beautiful young woman who was 5'10", 6'10" with the mohawk. I was encouraged to borrow a book to take home and read, or buy one with the $300 dollar store credit account i had, or wait till the end of the month when my $30 store credit came through and buy it with that. When i was sick i was encouraged to stay home (take an occurance, naturally) and go see a doctor oh, and not to forget to put in for the personal time. I was encouraged to start a Sci-Fi reading group and they gave me a copy of the title i chose for each month and also a $25 dollar gift certificate (not card...we didn't have those yet). I was encouraged to take a vacation. Before long i was encouraged to apply for a lead position, which...notably i didn't get. But I was encouraged to apply for a back up trainer position, so when our store trainer was away i could take over for her. I was encouraged to apply for The trainer position when she left, I got that one. When our Community Relations Co-ordinator (the guy who booked our 3 nights a week music sessions, our book readings, and our dozens of special events and managed all of our charity dealings) left, i was encouraged to apply for his job. By the time i left the CT store for New Hampshire i had been a member of the management team for 2 years. During this time the Encouragement never stopped. I remember Meeting Rich Flannagan, long time president of Borders in Ann Arbor, He said to me "CRC is an amazing position there are so many places to go within marketing, but your personality seems like you should focus on becoming a General Manager"...what? You ... understand my personality...and you are talking to me about it? You're the president of a major corporation that just went public...i don't understand...this isn't american retail, this is some kind of oz-like fantasy world where everyone in the company understands it's not about books it's about people. They Get it. I'm a part of an organization that Gets it! Thats why we have one copy of a book about slurs in biblical greek on the shelf...because a customer...a person... might want it. And it will make a bookseller, a person, feel good to find it for them.

The King of Borders-That-Gets-It retired (and passed away not long after which is a sadness worthy of dozens of blog posts) his replacement "turned around" borders which is to say changed our focus and all of her many replacements faced the same direction she did, but never had any focus. The philosophy of our board of directors became, as it must, about the shareholder. Who...as it turns out are not people, they are accounts. Accounts which must be embiggened. The Share Holders (many of which were employees but not enough to get a vote on a damned thing) must have their holdings increased. This is the nature of economics without biases. The balance sheet says it all. During this time we grew our "footprint" significantly. While Barnes & Noble was phasing out it's mall stores, we were buying them. While amazon was building it's web business we were ignoring ours ultimately asking if we could tag along with amazon and eat some scraps when they were done. We were eschewing the idea of cool kind of quirky stores in college towns and cities or underserved suburbs each with a unique vibe and an engaged staff, for cookie cutter big boxtrocities in any town with whoever we could get at a lower rate. We sent the book on slurs in biblical greek back to the publishers and exchanged it for Nora Roberts (i don't mean to pick on her but she's ubiquitous and not even remotely unique) latest. We went from having a conversation with our home office to having an Acronym that taught us how to talk to customers, something, frankly we had always been excellent at. We went from hand-selling to Make Books (a program whereby borders picked a book to thrust into everyone's face to show the publishers we could create a best seller "oh I see by your interest in {tilts head to look at title} Mein Kampf, that you would really like The Girls From Ames a touching tale about 12 friends and the lives they lead....") We went through 5 or 6 presidents who increasingly saw what we did as simply moving product. They didn't GET IT.

When we got it, when people, all people, were of primary concern, when we cared about diversity and intellect and imagination and OUR COMMUNITIES we made money. We grew. When we became about the bottom line, about shareholders accounts, and how many copies of "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" we could move, We shrank at an alarming rate. And Yesterday, even though I believe the current acting CEO to be kind of old school and sort of gets it, we died. We ended. My big Borders family...many of us who remember the days of getting it, will finally and unfeelingly be cast to the wind to blow away like we were never there, Debris in the wind storm of a market correction.

But we were there. I am Proud to have been a bookseller. I am proud to have worked for a once generous and supportive company that elevated me professionally and personally. I am proud to have helped endless people, no doubt suffering, find books on dealing with depression and anxiety or the death of a loved one. I'm proud to have put baby books and wedding books and college guides into peoples hands and to have been some small part of their lives for a bit. I'm proud to have given Phillip Pullman a leg up, and Octavia Butler and Muriel Barbery, Craig Thompson, and Malcom Gladwell. I am so proud to have learned so much over the years simply by being surrounded by books and having instant access to so much information and ideas. We were there. We got it.

To those who say this is a market correction, that this is overdue, that conventional publishing is dying: I think back to my Borders family, to all the people who have been a part of my life, even if just for a moment as i helped them shop, I say...You are probably right, but i kindly and respectfully add Fuck You.


  1. What you are describing is a microcosm of what is happening all over the US, and indeed the world, where profit over people has become as ubiquitous as a Nora Roberts mass market book. Sad.

  2. Amen! I remember being told to sell those titles. I would mention them but always had my actual faves as a backup. I know my boss got a finger shaking about my low make book numbers, but take pride that he could say "yes, but the customer with 5+ titles only came in for a blank notebook (or whatever)." Pride that led me to follow the man and the company from my Borders Express across the street to the Borders when they closed our successful store. In fact, we did so well they informed our boss he was taking over the super store that was in trouble.

    Was it because of their policies that we rocked? No. It was how a leader got out of the way and allowed his people to do it their way. Sure, we tried to sell what was dictated to us (we are up for the year as a store after all), but we took the time to know our customer base and find them what they _actually_ want. I started back post severance package in the cafe where the man needed me to be. Now, I lead my cafe team to the bookside after we close the cafe Thursday night. My boss needs this as much as we all need as many paychecks as we can get before the doors close. And he's a boss I would follow anywhere. Even to Barnes & Chernobyl (as I heard it on twitter last week) if he asked.

    I wish you luck in your journey through liquidation....I'm sorry, end of business sales.....know in advance: it sucks and the vultures should be beaten. I hope your liquidator is as cool as ours was in our mall. We're crossing our fingers for a cool guy too. After all, the right leader makes hell livable. We'll keep you updates if you keep all of us updated on how you're doing.

  3. Right on, fellow bookseller & barista. You get it. We got it. Nothing takes that away. Nothing could ever erase such an important, meaningful, interesting, compassionate, fun part of my life for 12 years.

    P.S. The Mein Kampf comment is priceless.

  4. Before I leave, I'm working up a "If you enjoyed 'Mein Kampf', you might enjoy...Ann Coulter" shelf tag.

  5. I hope that this experience for you, helps you start your next chapter. I enjoyed reading this. So, on the money. I only worked at Corporate for short time, but could see the division between those who rose up from the grassroots and "...but the shareholders" folks very soon. I, too, thought this is going to be the demise. I would love to be wrong. Best of luck to you. I hope it is better that you ever imagined.

  6. Good luck and God bless everyone involved....See my thoughts here...http://mypatheticblog.tumblr.com/post/7826250280/this-location-only-for-now

  7. I can't agree more. I started as a bookseller at the Rockville, MD store in 1995 and worked for 13 1/2 years for Borders until getting laid off at the beginning of the end 3 years ago. For my last 7 1/2 years I worked for Store Planning and Design and was part of that massive expansion and repeated remodel efforts. It was the best job I ever had, but I couldn't help thinking it was all too much, too fast, and without much focus other than expand, expand, expand. Really, the end began the year I was hired when Borders went public and started answering to shareholders, but it retained its soul for quite a while. I will always miss the stores and the company I worked for in the beginning when it really did get it.

  8. Nice essay. You summarize the times and the company well. Rich F. really did want to meet every employee.

  9. Thank you for posting this. I started in the cafe at the Rockville, MD store late in 1994 (gavm5 and I must have overlapped), moved to the Columbia, MD store and worked my way over to books, back to the cafe, to cafe lead and then cafe manager. For a while I thought about going further, because I loved books, the stores, (most of) the people I worked with, and the culture that the company cultivated. I spent holidays with at the home of a fellow barista who took in everyone who needed a place to go, and lunches hanging out on the picnic table a bookseller hand made for our store. I have been to my coworkers' baby showers, and to their funerals. The store was not always ideal, but it felt like we were working together for something we cared about.

    Then it all went wrong. It was obvious Borders was flailing, as evidenced by the continual morphing of the brand identity, the increasing amount of remainders, the expanding sidelines used to make money off something, anything! The cafes began to make money, but instead of letting each one tailor itself to the local market the operations were streamlined, which meant carrying products of ever decreasing quality that the staff was embarrassed to serve. I knew long term employees who lost company stock when it tanked in the late 1990s. Dissatisfied employees at my store started meeting to talk about unionizing. Staff were treated like criminals when we watched merchandise walk out the door, easily stolen because the company was too scared to have a tough shoplifting policy.

    Eventually I told my GM a literal fuck you when the company restructured in 2001 and I was demoted. When I started I had a manager who went to bat for her employees when other GMs wanted get rid of the "weird kids". I ended up with a GM who, I realized, had promoted me to manager just to get the mandatory 6 day holiday work week out of me for the Christmas season, then told me I wasn't manager material soon after wards. I left the day before my reduced salary went into effect.

    I haven't shopped at Borders much in the past few years. I use the library a lot and only purchase books that are special. Plus I get sad when I go into the stores. I remember the days of shelves crammed with books, no space because of the plethora of titles. I remember stores crammed with customers, because it was the kind of place that, while staying true to itself, appealed to everyone. Now, though, it's so watered down it appeals to no one. So I'm not really mourning the loss of the Borders of now, but one of my past.

  10. I helped open store 405 as a bookseller. My Borders career was short, but it's true - they DID get it. The pay was ok, but it was one of the nicest work environments I've ever been in. People cared about each other and we all cared about the store. It wasn't all unicorns and rainbows, but at the end of the day I felt good about my job and the people around me. I remember I took a break to visit London and made a special point of visiting the London Borders so I could send a postcard back to *my* store.

    Probably as effective as throwing pebbles at a freight train, but "Market Corrections" are what happen to companies that forget they are doing something other than playing the stock market.

    Sad to watch something you cared about die. Thanks for the reminder that it was once as good as I remember :)

  11. A very nice summary, and one that I largely agree with. I worked for Borders for almost ten years in St. Louis and Champaign, IL. When I became an assistant manager in 1999, I was in the last group of management trainees to have Rich Flanagan speak to them in Ann Arbor. His energy and enthusiasm were something to behold. It seemed that the store culture slowly but surely went from a positive to a negative during my tenure with the company. Certainly the failures in e-commerce contributed Borders' downfall, but the larger issue seemed to be the company's failure to remember what made it special in the first place.

  12. I agree that this goes farther than just the free market adjusting for new technology; this speaks to the death of the Borders' spirit and the death of the love of books that used to infuse everything we did. That love and spirit showed in our stores and our customers appreciated it. When Borders over extended itself in 2007 with overseas stores, remodeling every store in the nation three times in one year (reset, Paperchase, and Seattle's Best), they felt the best way to keep the company afloat was to break it. Instead of playing up its (and our) strengths, they decided to break our spirits - that business plan obviously didn't work out.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I too am a Barnes and Noble convert. I used to go over to Borders on my break, the atmosphere was so stifled and miserable at my place of employment. Borders #791 offered me a job after my 18th birthday and I never looked back. #251 was there for me when I left home in the middle of the night and moved over state lines, #59 enabled my first move into a supervisory role and allowed me to build my own store, pretty much from the ground up. All of them were gone in the first round of liquidation. I have never felt such a sense of loss.

    I have to tell you that it's only going to get worse from here, as I'm sure you know, and you will feel yourself and your booksellers blocking out the bad by acting badly. Your booksellers will be bitter and resigned where they were once excitable and smiling, your relationship with your liquidator will only become more strained, and the vultures will circle. Your new patrons will eventually stop saying thank you, then stop asking politely inappropriate questions - they will move straight into the demands, the haggling, the threats, and the destruction of your property. You'll watch your store empty out both of books and of booksellers, and it is the eeriest feeling.

    All of that being said, see it through, smile when you can, and make sure you get to know those people you never got a chance to really know. Stand on the display tables and sing or scream, whichever you feel compelled to do at the time. Take lots of pictures, even if you think this is a point in time that you'd rather not remember.

    We're the ones that "get it", I absolutely agree. And since we "get it" we'll be there 'till the very end, as any good friend would do for another. My heart goes out to you.

  15. I worked as a bookseller that folded in the early 90's for the same reason: new presidents who didn't get that books do not sell the same way TP and dogfood do. Sales plummeted when there was no recession. Good luck!

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. I think a great friend and mentor, Joan Eisenstodt, couldn't post without a profile, but I wanted to share her sentiments:

    Thank you for posting this. Your friend, Kelly, sent me the link bec. he knew I'd appreciate it.
    My Borders experience was in the old, individual store - the original - in A2. How I loved that store! It was exactly the bookstore I one day wanted to own. It wasn't as big as Powell's in Portland and it still had lots of nooks and crannies in which to read and lots of personality.
    Then they were sold (the first time?) and moved to an old dept. store. I knew that was the end.
    And yes, what you wrote is what happened to Kinko's which was a wonderful and fun company before the take-overs started and is happening to other companies. It so saddens me. I mourn the passing of Borders. I mourn the passing of bookstores as we loved them. Come to DC - spend time at Kramerbooks & Afterwords and feel like you are home again.