I was hired as a bookseller at the original Borders store in Ann Arbor in 1994. If you asked the townies, Borders was already finished by then: Tom and Louis Borders had betrayed their longtime employees when they sold the company to Kmart, two years earlier; we were corporate drones now. In truth, Kmart was hands-off, but the townies had a point. The Ann Arbor store had just moved to a larger building, to accommodate the addition of music and video departments and a café. More locations were opening, diluting the experience for faithful customers who had always made pilgrimages to Ann Arbor. The company was poised to go public and begin its near two-decade suicide.
It didn’t feel that way at Store #01, though. The original manager was still running the shop, still doing the hiring. The famous book test was still handed out to anyone who asked for a job application. Copies of the Sunday NYT Book Review and the New York Review of Books were complimentary for staff. A glance around the break room would typically find employees reading The Odyssey, say, or The Master and Margarita, or working the NYT crossword in ink. The closing shift often moved en masse to one of the nearby pubs. We rented houses together, stayed at the store for two or three years, left for law school. Only a dark night of the soul caught us referring to what we did as working in retail.
My lasting regret is that I didn’t become a bookseller there a decade earlier, because my first few years at Borders are probably my favorite years of my life. A trick of memory has had me mourning Borders’ demise as if those days at Borders were the sum total of my experience with the place, because the people I met then render dull most everyone I’ve met since, and the business of bookselling makes the duller, more-remunerative work I’ve done seem duller still.
The truth is more complicated, but not by much. I left Store #01 after four years, to open a second Ann Arbor location on the other side of town, in a new big box at an old shopping center along the interstate. It was just as sexy as it sounds. Customers pushed shopping carts from the pet supply next door through our narrow, carpeted aisles. The display space in stores was now sold to publishers, who increasingly threw all their marketing money at celebrity books. The famous book test was gone, and a visit to the break room would find the unspeakably-young staff watching television. It was, undeniably now, retail work. I fled back to the downtown store, where the good fight was still being fought, as soon as possible. But life led me away from Ann Arbor, and I quit in 2002.
And then…what? A decade of ill feelings. I can’t say I was much of a customer any longer; it had never bothered me greatly in childhood when a shoebox-sized Little Professor didn’t have the book I wanted, but to walk empty-handed out of a store the size of Borders, where I’d once been able to find anything, passing floor stacks of Glenn Beck’s latest on my way to the door, made my blood boil. Worst of all, when the life that led me away from the bookstore became intolerable, there was nowhere to retreat to – what once felt like home was now unrecognizable.
Now it’s over, and the idiots one expected to gloat are gloating, and eleven thousand more Americans are out of work (with more to follow). The only real lesson to learn from the story is perhaps the one Americans never seem ready to learn: Small may not be ideal, but Big is Crazy. Doesn’t anyone think eleven thousand is a lot of souls to be working in bookstores? And that’s only half the field. For comparison, there are less than fifty thousand UAW workers at General Motors.
I feel bad for everyone involved at the end, but I feel the worst for my friends, for my younger self, and for the store in Ann Arbor. For years, it was the best bookstore in the world; then it was reduced to a skeleton by ignorant suits, and now it’s gone. I’m not sure what was gained. A woman who gave many more years of her life than I did to the place recently posted on Facebook that this great experiment helped lead to a better-informed, more tolerant country. I rushed to agree with her, but the voice in my head said Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?