Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Day 9

Technically today was a day off too but I want to express something.

One of the (many) positions i've held with Borders was something called a CRC. Those of you who predate the current Millennia will remember this position. It stood for Community Relations Co-ordinator. We were the people who brought the fun in. We handled book signings we dressed up as the Borders Explorer, We smiled happily at drug reps as they shovelled buckets of cash into our pockets in an effort to get doctors to prescribe their own special breed of fat cure, that probably isn't even legal any more. We booked the bands. We set up poetry readings. We donated money to local charities. We bought media in the local press. We were members of the management team, yet outside it. In my store We had the cubicle that everyone gathered around. In my store we also had the best collection of action figures guarding said cubicle. We did all of this in an effort to ease ourselves into a community, to become one with it, to make our store resemble it's surroundings as best as possible. It was a Usonian position.

We had to drink a lot of Kool-aid too. I never really did. Borders had all this mumbley jumbley about how "small bookstores were not our enemy" and "competition should make them stronger". I never quite bought it. I should say, In my heart of hearts I believe the people in charge of the brainwashing division believed it to be true, but it just wasn't. No matter how much our marketing department wanted it to be so, it was not so. We crushed independent book stores. We may as well have set them on fire. Its not an aspect of working for Borders I'm proud of.

I feel guilty for that, but I mitigate my guilt.

Here's why: Independent anythings were dying long before we came around. The independent anything began dying in the 80's. My downtown (which has since had a resurgence, i should add) was decimated by a mall that opened on the other side of town. A mall filled with chain stores from the midwest that were selling goods imported from china for a cheaper rate than the local independent stores could manage. I lived where they manufactured many of the brands of shoes you have probably worn in your life, and still they couldn't be sold at a rate that could compare with what JC penny's was selling it's knock-off brands for, or worse, brands that were rising in popularity but decreasing in cost. All those shoes that were made in my state, are now made in China. When you buy them a handful of people from my area benefit, not the hundreds that did in the 70's or 80's. Furniture that the urban affluent pay scads of money for because it adds a "new England charm" to their Flat, left new england to begin being manufactured in the south because they would work for cheap, and now are being manufactured in south asia because they will work for cheaper. Maybe the guy who owns Ethan Allen is making some cash, but the people who lived in the now ghostlike northern Vermont towns where it was manufactured for decades, are struggling to find new means of support.

This is the consumer culture we have signed up for. One that expects to pay less on the back end without thinking what it does to the front. One that can't see or be bothered to care that every time it accepts a cheaper shoe, or chair, or dvd player, or toy it is also accepting pay cuts for someone and eventually for themselves down the road. We recognise no correlation between the value of a consumed good and the value of it's production. We like that a kindly old wizard somewhere in oz just tells a container of Nikes to click it's heels three times and say "theres no place like Target" and then magically it appears there.

This continued rush to pay less and less and less is just a result of an ever widening gulf in our disposable incomes. The increasing cost of a wide variety of things doesn't appear to be keeping up with wages, at the very least that is the perception and perception dictates reality. And that perception leads to an expectation of lower prices. An entitlement to lower prices.

Heres the truth: Competition ultimately declares a winner. But only one.

So...lest I sound like one of the heartless bastards that i've been railing against since i started 9 (incredibly long) days ago, I have to make it known that I currently support independent business. In 17 years i've bought 1 thing at walmart and that was an emergency. I've stopped shopping at Target since they decided to line the pockets of anti gay crusaders, same with Chick-Fil-A. I'm a shopper who shops with my ethics. I'm in a minority, i know, but i try to leverage the damage I have done as a representative of one of the big fish. Thats why I don't carry any guilt around. I've outsourced my guilt to small business owners.

If someone said to me 23,000 of your fellow booksellers have to lose their job so that independent small business can flourish and grow and hire them and many hundreds more back into bookselling, I would be the first person to say all right then. Lets make THAT happen. Me and many of the thousands of booksellers who used to work for mom & pop shops but now work at borders, would marvel at the idea. Imagine a book store for every need. Millions of books at your fingertips catering to any thought your mind could make up. A place where you could meet like minded people and get recommendations for titles to further an interest you may have. I feel like a mystery today, think i'll mosey on down to "TitleSleuth" (you're welcome) and see what they have to offer. I really would like to buy a cookbook about the cooking method of ethnic Winkies, why "Livre de cuisine" has precisely what i want! I think I need to read up on this whole "facebook" thing so I better run on over to "Megabooks" for all my computer information needs. But that isn't going to happen.

Best case scenario you're going to target to buy the new Grisham, Something garish by Guy Fieri, and Facebook for dummies. I say Target is the best case scenario because at least your sales tax dollars will flow back into your states coffers and at least you'll be buying them from a human being who works in your community, is probably from your community, and returns a fair bit of their income in the form of rent or just eating at the diner after drinking at the bar in your community. But really, the "saavy" buyers are going to go on amazon, save the 7% tax, and buy your monoculture books from an algorithm. Maybe a human will package it, that is if they haven't found a machine that can do it.

I happened to be riding a big fish when it swallowed a smaller one. Now my fish is being eaten. It's the form of commerce we have culturally decided we like. Everything that rises must converge. Eventually we will just wait for the walmazon rep to message us, we'll tell him what we want and magically our computer will puke one out for us. Maybe things will be better, maybe they wont. But it is coming. Brace yourselves. If your job gets swallowed by a bigger fish come find me. I'll give you a hug. You don't deserve to suffer the indignities of a commercial system that refuses to recognize your part in it all.

A lot of the Monday morning quarterbacking that is going on for all this madness seems to hinge on the idea that those of us who worked for borders, or for the smaller bookstores when borders consumed them, could have left at any time. Didn't need those companies for their livelihood. Should have seen which way the wind was blowing and pointed their sails appropriately. "No one was holding a gun to your head" is a phrase I see a lot. That somehow because a rotating door of upper management made bad choices, and I didn't see it and bail, that I deserve the turmoil that I live with, or at the very least I should shut up about it, because this is how it works.

If this is how it works, lets break it and see what happens.


  1. Bravo. Best one yet.
    I recommend this as a sort of companion piece:

  2. I have mixed feelings about independent bookstores. Back in 1994, just before I started with Borders in the Chicago area, I saw a "help wanted" sign in the window of our local independent. It was a nice little store, strong in fiction, cookbooks, and kids books. I went in and asked about the position. It paid $5.00 an hour with no benefits. I started a few months late at $6.50 an hour with Borders. If I needed insurance, I could get it.
    Independents are usually niche stores. Very few carry car manuals, computer books, business titles beyond the ones featured in the WSJ. The major independent in St Louis has one shelf of religion books. Borders filled the needs of all kinds of customers.