Monday, July 18, 2011

My time on the Borders - A eulogy for the big red bookstore

It would not be an understatement to say being hired at Borders was a watershed moment in my life; it may be the watershed moment. When I was hired in June, 2008, I was one of the nation’s many under employed. I’d done a number of odd jobs since I graduated from college but nothing that really let me find my stride. I fantasized about going to grad school to become a debate coach but I didn’t have the discipline I needed to rework one of my undergraduate papers into a passable writing sample. Landing that job at Borders had been a high point for me in a year, and ended what had generally been a long losing streak post College.

At Borders I found a home, and even if it wasn’t the best fit all the time, it was a safe harbor from which I could launch into the next part of my life, whatever that would be. I was hired as part of a “sort,” and industry term where a store is inventory, sorted, and moved/closed/opened. In this case it was a move to a brand new facility, it was a rush. It was an ahead of schedule ass kicking. Starting with sorting and alphabetizing shelves and moving them to large book carts that make the standard library cart look like a smart car. Once we had the books translated onto carts, out came the plastic wrap. They were Giant industrial roles that you could literally run around, wrapping them up, I loved it! After we had the carts wrapped up we loaded them onto trucks while over at the store another team unloaded them and shipped them up the freight elevator to our new digs, a huge empty set of bookshelves in fixtures in the new wing of the South Center Mall. Over the next few days we unboxed, unload, and placed millions of units of merchandise on the empty shelves filling it until they were bursting. Then we opened in the real fun began.

I really started to love my job, instead of just enjoying, when the customers came to the new location. I was quickly promoted to Bookseller, which meant I got to help people find books instead of being stuck behind the registers shilling rewards cards. Talking to people about the books, music, and movies, was awesome, being able to recommend the perfect item to a customer was a fantastic rush. I had people leaving the store with hundreds of dollars in merchandise based on my recommendations, it was a huge rush. It’s that rush, and love of my product that led me to stay in the job for as long as I did.

The job had its downsides as well, no room for promotion as nearly everybody loved their jobs, and managers often had years of experience in their current positions. Customers could be terrible, demanding, rude, and they were always right (it’s retail). There were homeless guys that could vacate quadrants of the store, and the occasional people who came in and read books without ever buying anything more than a cup of coffee. This wouldn’t have annoyed me if the same people didn’t crack the spines of the books as well, giving them a used look even though they had only been lightly read and browsed. I still get upset when I see a book with a broken spine.

Overtime the company changed. The worse time was the 2009 Christmas season. Ron Marshall was the CEO. Though many people lay the blame at Mike Edwards’s feet, Marshall is the one broke the company. Marshall was a tyrannical numbers man, and he had little patience for other leadership styles. Under Marshall’s reign, many seasoned managers were driven out by harassment, because of “poor” performance, or just because they could no longer stomach Marshall’s program. Marshall introduced make books, and drove rewards cards sign ups to a suicidal level. I was fortunate in that I was shielded from much of Marshall’s terror by a quality management team, with a man at the helm who despite occasional shortcomings was one of the best leaders I have ever worked with and I’m an eagle scout. Marshall also stopped hiring managers from inside the company.

No longer could you rise from within Borders. Instead people from businesses like Linins And Things, and Circuit City was brought in to run a bookstore. It’s not fair to paint all the new GM’s with a brush of incompetence, but a significant portion of them were. This started at the District Manager level and gradually trickled down to the store level. The result was a company of Yes men and women in key management positions, with a bunch of booksellers left in a sinking ship.

Increasingly over the last year the company got increasingly desperate, in the 3 years I worked for Borders I saw three (technically four) CEOs, four District managers, and three regional VP’s. It’s not unusual to see a high level of turnover in retail. It a bit odd when the top of a company looks like the personnel at a McDonalds franchise, while the sales floors at many Borders had people with decades of experience. This rotating door of leadership bred uncertainty at the bottom level, further expanding the already substantial flow of experience and talent away from the company. In short, Borders was officially screwed at a fundamental level. When you are in crisis talent can be the difference between coming out on top and going under. Borders was losing talent in spades.

…And this is where I duck out. In the beginning of the Marshall terror, I realized that I loved my job. After an unsuccessful job hunt for a bookseller job that provided a living wage, I realized I needed to find an alternative or find the capital to start my own bookshop. As the Marshall terror wore on the need for an option was increasingly urgent. As I meditated day after day, one option became clear, Librarian.

Borders helped my find my calling. Even though this is the result of working there through the worst part of its death throes, for that I will always love my job there. My coworkers were always generous, professional, and wonderful. They put up with my occasional BS and generally were nice to me even when they didn’t have to be. I made friends at Borders, and I will always love them. For them, I mourn the loss of the company. The managers who gave me a job, and the mangers who kept me employed at Borders, you have my thanks. Jon, Theresa, Michael, and KJ, you guys rock.

Borders was engaged in a fundamental struggle to immerge into the second decade of this millennium. They failed for a variety of reasons and that failure is tragic, even as haters take potshots at its big box corpse. This post is not meant to be a forensic exploration of Borders. I plan to write that later. I wrote this because I am sad and a little bit angry at the loss of a company that I love, even though, in the short time I worked there our relationship had become abusive. I need to get this off my chest so that I can get to bed tonight. Public morning is good for the soul. Why do I grieve? If it weren’t for Borders, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I’m going to miss my big red bookstore.


  1. I really loved reading this. Your account of the company's breakdown from a perspective of having passion for what you do is. moving. A succesful leader would have capitalized on their employees with such enthusiasm, instead they squandered it. As I start my master's program in Organizational Development, I wil remember this post. Thank you for sharing

  2. Thank you for sharing! I've been writing my own eulogy, and it's nice to see other employees who are having their own moment to say goodbye to this dear old friend laid low by portable electronics. Without a proper wake or funeral, we turn to the internet to find each other and hear the stories... The irony is not lost on me!

    I am with you in mourning,

  3. Alissa,
    That sounds like a really cool degree. Where is the program?

  4. "A Farewell Love-Note: As Borders Books Closes, my letter about our 15 year romance" http://oliviahennis.wordpress.​com/2011/07/18/a-farewell-love​-note/
    Figured I would share mine, since I enjoyed yours! Thanks!

  5. I really enjoyed finding your blog. I wasn't always a book-lover until I worked as Asst. Manager at a bookstore chain in central Louisiana. There I found my love for books and especially writing. Keep up the interesting and very *intellectual* writing!