Monday, July 18, 2011

R.I.P. Borders

It doesn't matter that you haven't spoken to your old friend in years. It doesn't matter that they let you down, repeatedly, toward the end. Attacked you even at times. That the breakup, after nearly 25 years, while amicable, wasn't pretty. Doesn't matter. Nope. When you find out family is dying, all that bad stuff seems to go away. And make no mistake...Borders is family to me.

That's right. Borders. The bookstore chain. Oh, I had seen her around, then Waldenbooks, since the seventies. But it was the Fall of 1982 when we actually became friends under what would prove to be Twilight Zone circumstances (Search "Lana Turner" above left). I was a green kid of 23 and suddenly I found myself working with openly gay managers, politically incorrect employees and even having certain illegal substances passed around at store meetings...where the District Manager was present! It was a much more open time and because of that there was much less disrespect for people than one sees now in more "protective" circumstances.

Waldenbooks taught me to love books more than I already did. She taught me about publishing, printing and distribution, marketing, merchandising and small presses. She taught me that if you try to give your employes everything they requested, then they'd be there for you when you needed them because they knew you CARED! I paid close attention in that first year, working downtown for the most part but also regularly on loan it to a suburban mall store.

After one year, I felt I was ready to take the next step. I became Assistant Manager of that mall store. It wasn't easy. I had a contentious relationship with my boss much of the time. But we both knew we made a great team and we made a dinky little no-traffic store in a mall built for 96 stores--that never had more than 12--survive and thrive. We won contests, stole corporate sales from our competition, even made the papers at one point!

Through convoluted circumstances, I was passed over for promotion when my boss moved up and out. I wasn't at all happy with the new one. Over time I grew to hate and resent the new one...who was eventually to be fired for stealing from the company. So...I followed my old one, eventually reteaming with her at a new and bigger mall where we had nine full years of newer and bigger triumphs during which time we all went through some life changes. In my case, that meant, among other things, meeting the woman I was meant to marry (see Lana Turner story) and marrying her!

After 13 years working with my partner/boss at three different stores, I had learned a lot both from her and from the company. By that point, we had merged with the line of superstores that K Mart had purchased for us and become Borders Group, Inc. We had then run away from home and put ourselves out in the cold, harsh world. I was finally promoted in that period to running my own store--the one I had left so unceremoniously nine years earlier. There followed five more years of a honeymoon period in which I was credited with keeping that store in business and making it once again successful. By that point, only five stores remained in that giant, dead mall.

Little by little during this period, the company began to change its thinking and its ways of doing things. They would even repeat things that had already failed in the hopes that perhaps this time they would win! The people up at the top no longer knew books. they were hired from the garment industry, the electronics industry and other, non-literary areas. They knew "business" we were told, and that's what counted. They didn't need to know books. But they did. the company taught me...ISN'T just another form of retail! To do it properly on any level one needs to at least recognize and deal with a host of ideas and concepts outside the actual physical product one is selling. On the store level, they were suddenly telling us not to even bother talking about books during job interviews but rather about selling experience!

In 2000, she asked me to save the day again--to move to another store in farming country out on the far side of Cincinnati and work my magic again to keep a store from closing. It was a rough time for me and with middle management now scrambling to stay in good with a constantly changing CEO, the rules changed almost monthly. Nothing they suggested worked and when I came up with innovative ideas that I could show DID work (he said humbly) I was shot down. All stores needed to be exactly the same, I was told. I was there three years all told and even though there were still some good times, it was clear our relationship wasn't what it once was. Finally, inevitably, we split.

We were apart for three years but we decided that what we had was so special maybe we should give it another try. So we got back together. Our reunion was at the airport. She had the new name by then. Borders. But at heart she was still my Waldenbooks. In the beginning it was tentative. I was just an employee this first. But soon enough I was manager again. But she had changed in so many ways by this time. All the things she taught me, all the ways to sell, all the ways to treat your employees...those were now considered all wrong. And the political correctness was stifling and invited nothing but animosity between everyone while supposedly there to keep problems from occurring. It didn't work out this time. Again, it wasn't all bad. Some fun, some good people...but ultimately dysfunctional to the max. She blamed me, of course. I continue to this day to blame her.

But as I say, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. When someone has been that big a part of your life for so long, they count and they always will. Just because we could no longer get along...just because we could no longer live together...doesn't negate her importance to me. I love you Borders. I'll miss you.


  1. Wow it's amazing to read your history with Borders. I worked with a number of folks who had similar experiences including the alcohol and other substances at store meetings :)

    Unfortunately I joined the company in 2000 and by the time I got there most of the store level freedom was disappearing. I came over from Barnes & Noble and started with Borders as an assistant manager. I would soon learn there were 7 assistant managers an events manager and a full store manager. It was SOOOO top heavy.

    Within 3 months of my joining the company they restructured. There would be 1 GM, 3 Managers and several supervisors. I was the only one chosen to become one of the managers at my store over all the others who had worked for the company for years. Needless to say there were a ton of hard feelings and my first year was a complete nightmare.

    That nightmare was nothing compared to the complete clusterfuck that was the last 3 years I spent with Borders. At one point things got so bad, they cut our hours so far that we couldn't schedule booksellers, the managers and supervisors staffed the floor. At times there was only one of us on the floor covering the registers, helping customers at the information desk, answering the back door, etc. It was hard. Customers walked out of stores in droves.

    Eventually they added some hours back into the stores but not many and in a desperate flailing attempt to save the company they had us running around changing everything. We relayed the store twice in 2 years, moved entire sections in cases to new homes. It took months of backbreaking labor and the only thing it did was confuse customers.

    You were completely right the biggest mistake Borders continued to make was hiring people with zero book experience to lead their company. Books are different then groceries and clothes and inexperience ruined the company.

    The worst of the lot however was George Jones, he made so many terrible decisions starting with spending that outrageous amount of money to buy the website back from amazon and ending with his golden parachute, lots more stupidity in-between too. There have been many blaming a slow rate in adding ereaders to our stores but I think that was only a small part in this mess. It was bad leadership that killed Borders pure and simple .

    Wow this is long, guess I just had a lot to say. Kind of feels like attending a wake.

    thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Incredible stories, thanks for sharing.
    My relationship with Borders was as a customer. I live in Mexico where bookstores are scarce so imagine my surprise when on a visit to the United States I found at a Mall a GIGANTIC bookstore. I couldn't believe my eyes, I had on past visits visited Waldenbooks and the long defunct B. Dalton's Booksellers but this was a whole other level. The store was as big as a warehouse and they had CD's and DVDs as well - I was in heaven.
    I became a regular customer on each trip to the USA. I bought 3-6 books on every visit and then became a Borders rewards member and even bought online a few things, but the best experience was ALWAYS a visit to a store. Yes, I said experience because that's what it was. It was almost a magical place, rows and rows of books.
    By the time I make my next visit to the US more than likely ALL of the stores will be closed and that saddens me. Who's to blame? Ebooks? Management? Amazon's competition? Lack of readers? Who knows.

  3. I remember the store in Cincinnati. I believe it was fate that led me into that store on that specific night where I met you and you basically adopted me. If I have any reason to mourne for Waldenbooks/Borders, it is foremost because once they close those doors, meetings like ours won't happen anymore.

    Incredible piece full of history and humor. You never disappoint me.

  4. The almost Piscean quality of the Waldenbook/Borders dyad leaves an indelible mark on our spirit. My time at Borders is sometimes looked back on with the forgetfulness or even fond regard that comes after labor. Labor we did...even though it became a fair weathered relationship, I am changed for the experience. For all the good, bad and ugly...what I learned is invaluable to me. I learned that one should be passionate in their career..that it truly conveys over. That good leadership makes a difference because I saw the effect and affect of the upper echelon choices during many of a change process. I especially learned that above all else it is relationships with people that not only drive business;it drives our hearts. Thanks for writing and sharing your was refreshing to my soul.