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Being a Borders bookseller, then and now

August 3, 2011 | 12:56 pm


Camaraderie, sexual adventures, slow embitterment and a trail of corporate missteps figure in Paul Constant's tale of bookselling at Borders. Constant, the books editor of Seattle's alternative newspaper The Stranger, talks to a former Borders executive and a current staffer -- both use pseudonyms -- as well as tapping his own experience. More than a decade ago, he was a Borders employee himself.

Constant writes in the piece (which includes strong language):

It's embarrassing now, but on the day that I was hired to work at Boston's flagship Borders store in 1996, I was so happy that I danced around my apartment. After dropping out of college, I had worked a succession of crappy jobs: mall Easter Bunny, stock boy at Sears and Kmart and Walmart, a brief and nearly fatal stint as a landscaper. A job at Borders seemed to be a step, at long last, toward my ultimate goal of writing for a living. At least I would be working with books. And the scruffy Borders employees, in their jeans and band T-shirts, felt a lot closer to my ideal urban intellectuals than the stuffy Barnes & Noble employees with their oppressive dress code and lame vests....

At the time, independent bookstores were blaming Borders for a spate of mom-and-pop bookstore closures around the country. I'll never forget the employee at Bookland in Maine who coldly accused me of single-handedly destroying her small chain when I admitted who my employer was, even as I was buying $50 worth of books from her. Of course, the accusations had truth to them — small bookstores simply couldn't compete with the deep discounts the chains offered — but for what it's worth, every employee who worked at Borders, at least when I first joined the company, adored literature. We were not automatons out to assassinate local business. We wanted to work with the cultural artifacts that were the most important things in our lives, the things that made us who we were. Not all of us could find work at independent bookstores, so we did the next best thing: We went to work for a company that seemingly cared about quality literature and regional reading tastes, and gave its employees a small-but-fair wage for full-time bookselling careers, with excellent benefits. It sure didn't feel like selling out.

Until suddenly, one day, it did feel like selling out. Because it was.

Constant's article raises many important points about the dissolution of Borders. As a bookstore, it lost its footing some time ago. It was led by executives who understood retail in general but not books in particular, and the company foolishly contracted Amazon to manage its pesky Internet bookselling, ensuring that it would be left behind. Those aren't problems with books or reading or readers, those are problems with the business part of running a business.

With better leadership, could Borders have survived? The company, which entered bankruptcy this year, is undergoing liquidation. More than 10,000 employees nationwide are losing their jobs.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A Borders bookstore in New York. Credit: Bloomberg