Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Day 16

I knew our company was doomed the day Anne Kubek Left.

You see every General Manager i've ever had when working for Borders has been a woman. What, you wonder, difference does that make? Is it important that I've worked for women my whole Borders career? Yeah i think so, i think it makes an enormous difference. This isn't going to be a woman vs men in the workplace conversation. It isn't going to be that because i think that is a bogus conversation, burdened more by what the speakers bring to it than actual fact. Even when you have this conversation with many women it steers down streets designed and paved by sociological dictum, not real experience or information.

Nope this is going to be a conversation where i highlight something about borders i think is one of it's most powerful assets, and something that gets too lost in the smoke of the battle for or against "political correctness". And of course got lost in the battle of productivity vs profit. Of course i'm speaking of Borders commitment to diversity.

Not everyone reading this has been around long enough to remember the Diversity Beads/ What a hokey concept! We all took training (okay, a video, filmed in store one to be sure) to learn about why it's great to have women, minorities, gays and lesbians, people of all mobility levels working in our store. Then after we made bracelets and thingies to hang from our lanyards of all kinds of funky beads the home office bought for us to commemorate said training and create a visible representation of a fundamental brick in the Borders foundation. Everyone mocked it, even today amongst the Borders elders there is a warm smile followed by a gentle eyeroll when it's mentioned. During a cultural tidal wave of irony, Borders pulled a move of perfect earnestness out of its butt.

That earnestness is a defining characteristic for this company. One put on display at the beginning of every training video I've ever seen, by one Anne Kubek. I met Anne once, i doubt if she remembers, I'm sure she doesn't. But I was left with an impression of a person who was all business but the type of business that was in the business of making things Better. I don't know all the details but Anne lead our company through a lot. And i remember during the long cold winter of Ron Marshall i would look at communications from her to the field and i would least i know someone is there fighting the right fight. Then she left. I don't know why, but truly she took with her my sense of hope for Borders ever returning to the wonderful, caring, crusading company i remember.

Anyway, back to all my bosses, and how they are, you know...ladies. They've run the gamut too. I've liked some, I've loathed some. Some were super educated, some were not. But whats important is that, unlike a lot of other places, women were giving the orders. All the way up the food chain too. Lesbians, gay men, men and women of color. And not just because they were there, but because borders cultivated an atmosphere of no matter who you are, no matter what background or baggage you bring into the doors, whats important is your skill, your leadership, and your desire to make the company outstanding. Borders chose this path because it is the right path.

The dignity of our staff had primacy. Employees were referred to as "The number one customer". Our people were taught to EXPECT an environment that was professional, fun, and free of any kind of harassment or hostility. We EXPECTED everyone to respect one another, and our customers, because it was the only way to ensure that respect was returned. I've had to remind many women i've worked with (and i'm not saying it's a woman only issue, but i can only document my experience, i'm sure others have a different experience) that they have the right to an environment free of being belittled and demeaned because of their gender or appearance. We can be laid back and we can be cool, but there is a line and you know where it is. It's on that spot where anyone becomes uncomfortable.

Over time that expectation began to dwindle. As managers and people in authority became fewer and further between, as staff began to be stretched thin, but the workload never seemed to, you began to see a distinct "we don't have time for those thoughts at the moment, we have to get stuff done" mentality begin to chip away at the respect for our labor and dignity we as workers had. Most of the booksellers i work with now don't remember the last time they took a 10 minute break. How sad is that? When i was a bookseller my 10 minute break was a religious institution. I didn't smoke, but i'd often times pair up with a smoker if the floor could manage it and we'd hang outside for 10 minutes looking over the rolling Connecticut hills, watching the giant flocks of little black birds weft and warp in the autumn sky. Shivering and commenting on how nuts people were to come out in the snow in the bitter cold of January. My two most frequent partners were Mark, a man who identifies as queer, and pam, my first borders boss, a lady in her late 40's who i became so fond of when i left that store she and i had a good weep together. Quick and mostly snuffly, we're new englanders after all. But it was my first exposure to diversity in this way. "identifies as queer" was a new concept to me. I thought of everything as binary, gay or straight, man or woman. Even though i played it off as if i was incredibly urbane and totally got it, really i spent some time reading up on gender and sexuality identification in the LGBT studies section ( YES WHOLE SECTION, not three shelves) and it was amazing to me. So here was an enormous hairy man wandering about proclaiming his queerness. And an amazingly funny African American woman who was just a bit older than me and loved star trek. A Audrey hepburnesque young gay man desperately in love with one of the guys there who was perpetually unavailable to him. It turned out we both had a love of Doctor Who(like special order that shit on VHS kind of love, that was rare pre-David Tennant, who incidentally i'm sure that particular young man adores). There i was sitting in the middle of this nexus of all lifestyles, genders, ethnicities, ages, and social skill level and we all found things in common. We all respected each other, and we all elevated each other personally, professionally, and intellectually. And we did a lot of that on our 10 minute breaks together.

Borders tried within it's walls to create a place that corrected so much of the bigotry and alienation the world outside struggled with. It created a zone of absolute acceptance, one that tolerated no intolerance. We accepted no level of abuse. It was a wonderful country, in it's season. I was there, we were there, me and all the woman who gave me my orders, because Borders created the space for that to happen. It wasn't an accident, a fluke of nerddom, or some happenstance of economical exclusion. It was intentional, and it was glorious. We should not accept not EXPECTING it to be that way for everyone.


  1. I still have my diversity beads!! I use them to make necklaces.

  2. Wonderful. I remember you telling me about this Borders while you were there. And, again, you show us how a study of Borders is just a microcosm of the world at large.

  3. Thank you for this post! And your continuing posts. :)

    Borders was the first place I saw employees who didn't look like they were cookie-cutter people. It was the first place I saw employees who were not hiding their noserings with bandaids, or dyeing their hair back to a "normal" color. I fell briefly into infatuation with a blue-haired girl at a Borders, because my god! Look at her! She must love working there...

    And that helped me fall in love with Borders, too. No where else at the time in my Massachusetts/New Hampshire teenage life was I seeing people like that. Maybe at Hot Topic (when it was still gothy) and Hootenanny or Newbury Comics... but they always looked like they HAD to dress that way heehee At Borders, you could just be yourself... and you weren't SELLING that look.

    Thanks again!