September 21st, 2011 / 5:26 pm

Why I Hate That Borders Sign

First a note about my perspective. I’m a bookseller. I’ve been a bookseller for almost 12 years. I’ve worked as a floor clerk, in an author events department, in Kids Books, claimed publisher coöp, cashiered, and now spend most of my time behind the scenes writing ads and newsletters and signs.

I know the customers referred to on that sign. I’ve dealt with them, too. I know retail work can be very difficult, and that in the face of a lack of empathy from customers who have never themselves worked retail one can lose one’s own empathy. I also know the folks who come in, ask you to help them look for a book they only have a little bit of information about (a partial title, a remembered book review from a two-month old magazine), follow you to the shelf, pull out their phones, and reward your diligence by scanning the bar code and placing an order through Amazon. Right there. With you watching.

So I know frustration. I know that list. But look at it. Really look at it. With only a couple of exceptions, it says: We, the booksellers here at this Borders, hate your taste in books, we hate when you only have partial or vague bits of information, and we hate the way you ask for help.*

Response regarding taste: A good bookseller can influence a customer’s reading list simply by suggesting something near enough to the book they ask for. Expanding a person’s taste is a better response than silently judging someone’s taste. Response regarding partial information, many of the booksellers I work with actually sort of relish this kind of challenge, as most customer interactions are quick and shelving during the lulls can be a little dull. Unless you’re really into the alphabet. (And I am.) Response regarding the way someone asks for help: Get over yourself immediately.

On balance, those don’t feel like the things workers with real grievances say. They just seem petty. (Funny? Maybe. At times) And they’re also aimed at the wrong target.

Imagine yourself an avid Oprah book club reader coming in to the Borders where you bought all your books. You’re sad that it’s closing. You step down an aisle and encounter a sign. Imagine finding out you were annoying and they didn’t want you there.

But that’s not really what I hate about it. That’s just what sort of annoys me about it. I hate implications.

Brick & Mortar: Indies and Chains and the Way They Leave

Bookselling is retail, but only sort of. A book actually can change a life. A pair of pants probably can’t. (Depending on the pair of pants, I guess. I mean, are they really nice pants?) So this isn’t just a “retail is Hell,” thing for me.

And book retail is in a bad way right now. I’ve watched the crisis hit. I’ve watched stores close.

Stacey’s Bookstore in San Francisco closed after 85 years in operation. And it was tragic. And it was sad. And on the way out, Stacey’s thanked its customers for being there. Here’s a section from a letter Ingrid Nystrom, Marketing and Events Manager, wrote at the time:

“After talking with so many customers disappointed by Stacey’s closure, I’ve been reminded that Stacey’s has served as a decompression zone between work and home, a welcoming island of culture, a Christmas treat, a literary community, an escape from corporate-land, an interesting talk with lunch, and, of course, a bookstore. Whatever Stacey’s did or didn’t mean to you, I would like to remind you to look around you at your physical community and think about what matters. And if it matters, remember to step outside of your virtual world, unplug your iPods, look up from your Blackberrys and shop it, talk it, engage it.”

Amazon sells books more cheaply than most brick and mortar stores. The only thing a brick and mortar store has going for it is its people. The only thing we have going for us is if we are a part of the community.

Amazon can’t host a reading. Amazon can’t engage directly. Amazon can’t walk you over to a shelf and pull down three books, put them in your hand, tell you their relative merits, sway you. They just show you pictures, give you a couple of pages, and point you to a review.

Stacey’s said goodbye to its community. The employees at that Borders—who said goodbye with a giant middle finger to the customers instead of the corporate management who overextended them and doomed them—weren’t a part of any community. And they made sure to inform everyone they weren’t a part of any community. And maybe (quite likely) it was the Borders culture that fostered that feeling. So maybe I’m not so mad at the employees for feeling that way.

(But, Jesus. Putting that sign up in the store? Don’t you have a blog?)

My initial comment:

Bookstores that employ people who think this way SHOULD go out of business.

Maybe it’s better to say:

Bookstores that foster an atmosphere where employees think that way SHOULD go out of business.

And look. It did.


*As for the others, I have no issue with someone reading a Playboy and maybe hiding it. I realize this one is likely the most tongue-in-cheek, but it also comes off a bit prudish. If someone has an entire family and each is buying a book and using a coupon, maybe you should be happy you are selling four books instead of one. When someone asks for the “non-fiction section,” and you say, “Well, it’s pretty much everywhere,” they tend to also realize how funny the question is.

Otherwise, parents should watch their kids and Glenn Beck is an idiot. Cosigning on those.

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  1. Anonymous

      Matthew, I get where you’re coming from, but having been on both sides of the counter and the customer side of the restaurant table…I have been out with friends (notably those that have never waited tables or worked retail) and actually witnessed a strange transformation that some people have when around waitstaff and clerks, a shift from amiable and laid back to rudely demanding and acutely critical, even when no need whatsoever. It’s as if no matter what the clerk/waiter does, he/she is going to be put in his/her place.

      Now, I will say that it’s too bad the Borders employees didn’t criticize management on that sign, but realize that they’re getting it from above, below, and all of the crap they must hear during the going out of business sale.  Frankly, I think if customers are politely told how it is (as in the situation of someone using your store as an Amazon satellite to browse) rather than all yessir/yesmaam, then it’s much better for one’s peace of mind.  And, yes must of the grievances on the sign do seem frankly silly and poorly written, but it’s more the release (like why the stage version of Temp Slave always sells out) that some of us appreciate rather than the point by point of the sign.

  2. Matthew Simmons

      As I mentioned, I’ve spent my time on both sides of the counter, too. I really do understand where the appreciation for the sign came from. I understand how it might have resonated positively with people.

      I just felt like I needed to fully explain what it was about it that made me react so negatively and a long comment didn’t really feel the place for it.

  3. Anonymous
  4. mimi

      ” The employees at that Borders—who said goodbye with a giant middle
      finger to the customers instead of the corporate management who
      overextended them and doomed them—weren’t a part of any community. And
      they made sure to inform everyone they weren’t a part of any community.
      And maybe (quite likely) it was the Borders culture that fostered that
      feeling. ”

      – right on

      – sad, tho

      fuck corporate management, i say

      of course, i ‘feel for’ the ‘corporate management’ wondering ‘how they’ll pay for the kids’ private schools now’ – ha ha ha

      and the ‘buddhist’ in me, instead of wanting to say ‘fuck you’ is trying to ‘feel/remain detached’ –

      here’s a good song to listen to –

      right here, right now

      peace y’all

  5. mimi
  6. mimi
  7. Matthew Simmons
  8. Mike Meginnis

      I like this post. It is good.

  9. mimi

      oh fuck


  10. Riley Michael Parker

      There is an American disease that gets worse with every generation, and that disease is Entitlement. I am not above this, mind you, I have it too. We are born with it, of course, but it is a social problem, as this is fostered and encouraged in every facet of our development, and as a result our communities continue to shrivel and destroy themselves. Even within growing communities, as they build themselves they are simultaneously unraveling, and capitalism plays a huge part.

      This may seem off base, but there is a point.

      One of the worst phrases ever developed is “The customer is always right,” because we are all customers, most of our lives we are customers, paying for services provided, and now, as a nation, we assume that we as individuals are always right, deserve the best at all times, and are more important than everyone else in every scenario in which money is involved. But we are also the service providers, and in that position we realize, or have it reaffirmed, that we are important, that our services are valuable and necessary, and so we want to be treated as such. We know that we are in these positions so other people don’t have to be, because what we do needs to be done. And this is any service, from cleaning storm drains to teaching children to flipping burgers. Everyone is valuable, and thus should be entitled to respect and consideration–right? But we forget that as a consumer or a patron of services, and we feel entitled to king treatment because we’re spending money. Such a human flaw. Such a capitalistic flaw. I have this flaw. I act the same way. It’s a rampant disease, because it has manifested itself as a core value, the idea that I mentioned above now self-personified, turned into “I am valuable and worthy of respect and consideration”. It becomes a mantra, which sounds positive but is in fact incredibly destructive. It should be “We are valuable…” or “Everyone is valuable…” but we turn it on ourselves, become individuals and not a part of any greater community, on neither a local or national level, and thus forget how to treat one another as an extension of ourselves. And when against all odd communities are formed, they quickly become individuals, as in my community vs. your community. This is human nature. This is unavoidable. The downside of individuality and self-confidence is arrogance and self-involvement. We’ve known this for years.

      This all plays a part, but what it really boils down to is this: Borders is a store that is aimed at the lower class and the ever-shrinking middle class. It is mass retail in malls and suburbs across America (erm, was). The people in charge of the company, from the upper class, decide on what to sell, how to sell it, and so on, and then get the lower class to sell the products to themselves. Employees, even managers, have little power and are bullied by their employers. No one wants to make a career of Borders-esque stores because it is just retail, and we are taught not to value this (despite being taught to concern ourselves with nothing else, but I digress). You have a store run by people who see their position as temporary and who have no interest in building a community that will be A) eventually abandoned, and B) taken away by upper management AS SOON as they catch wind of it. Next you have the customers themselves, lower class, burdened, seeking entertainment, escape, et cetera. They have money, they earned it, and they want to spend it on something and feel good about themselves; validated. They work shitty jobs, get walked on, bullied, and now, because of the money in their hands, they are in control. Of course they are going to act entitled, condescending, and so on. Unless you remind them of themselves, can prove to them that you are the same, a customer will always act like they own the place, both out of desperation and because we have, as a society, taught all of us to act this way. And it is corporate policy to let people act in this fashion, because the company wants the money these people hold, and it is practically in the job description that they pay their employees to be dogs (obedience, loyalty, humility, and protection of assets). And then the employees, having been treated this way, will undoubtedly treat someone else this way, perhaps in a different profession, but it will happen. Or, and this is much less common, when a person knows that they will be out of work but still have time left in which to come to terms with this, the person may act out against themselves and their peers, but very rarely will they attack the “master”. The ones in charge are still in charge. Lashing out at them is pointless. It’s more fulfilling to attack one’s peers, because you get to see the devastation. All anyone wants is control, at least of themselves.

      In conclusion, the sign was petty, but understandable. The result of powerless people being bullied by other powerless people. Isolation begets isolation, entitlement begets entitlement, and so on and so on, forever and ever, amen. The sign is the symptom of a sickness that is built into the infrastructure of our society. The comparison of the big corporate store to the independent store is a sincere example of what some people pretend that big government is to small government (they are wrong, small government could never function the way that they hope, almost entirely because of corporations and the fact that they are indeed a government within themselves. Small business, big government, everyone wins, hoorah, hoorah), but that is a conversation for another time.

      Thanks, Matthew, for sharing your thoughts.


  11. Matthew Simmons

       Thanks, Mike.

  12. Anonymous

      Certainly not off-topic and quite thoughtful.  To comment further…1) The internet (yelp, etc.) has kicked up exponentially the mindset of which you speak.  We’ve got “pursuit of happiness” hardwired in us, which has somehow degraded into that of which you speak.  2) I have to disagree with the notion of “I got treated lousy by a few customers while at my retail job, so now I’m going to take it out, consciously or subconsciously, on the waitress at dinner” continuing to cycle.  Speaking for myself and others I know, everyone who has worked in retail and or waited tables (past or present) gets along better with other clerks and waitstaff, definitely doesn’t take frustration out on them…and tips better too. 

  13. nanlan
  14. cory bennet

      the fact that you are trying to feel detached will render your attempts useless. buddhism is wacky. 

  15. mimi

      “. . . and the pain was enough to make a shy bald buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder ” – morrissey & johnny marr

      _life_ is wacky

  16. Nick Mamatas

      I loved Stacey’s.

  17. Bradley Sands

      I worked at a Borders for a summer a long time ago and agree with almost everything on the list, but it’s just an inappropriate time for the sign to go up. An employee or employees lost their jobs, so they put it up in anger. It would have been appropriate if someone put it on their blog during a time when hundreds of bookstores weren’t closing across America. Then maybe people would have linked to it on facebook and elsewhere and it could have turned into a meme-like thing like it is now, but I doubt that would have happened. Seems more like a list for anyone who has ever worked at a bookstore than those who have not so employees and former employees can vent their frustrations together. Someone should write a positive variation of the sign and hang it up on a store that’s closing. There are a lot of good things about working at a bookstore, even a corporate one that doesn’t actually have any books that I want to buy in stock so it forces me to shop at amazon.

  18. alan

      Can you elaborate?

  19. Omar De Col

      um, i’m pretty sure a pair of pants can change your life. you ever seen the sisterhood of travelling pants bro?

  20. bobby

      Thanks, Mathew, for posting this. I feel like I want to be a better person after reading it. 

  21. Amber

      yes and yes and yes. I worked in retail for 15 years, and part of that time was spent working at a Barnes and Noble. (Kids dept! I loved it except when I had to wear the character suits.)And though customers drive you nuts and are infuriating, they are also why you are there–and the number of times I was able to make a tiny, tiny difference in someone’s life by recommending something a little bit better, or something that made them happy–that only happened because I wasn’t an entitled fucking douche who just laughed at the fact that they were reading Dan Brown or whatever. Books are books and people should be buying them and anyone who doesn’t love selling them should get the fuck out of the bookselling business.

  22. Guest

      These people were low-level employees at a national retail operation–the chum of their food chain. We wouldn’t blink if this came from an employee from Wal-Mart, because they are what their employers need them to be: beaten-down, docile, reduced to passive-aggressive sniping at their annoyance of the moment.

      Community? At a retail chain, seriously? Let’s recall our retail code of ethics: overwork, underpay, fire the complainers, intimidate the herd. The good ones leave? Fine; we wouldn’t pay them fairly anyway. I guess that leaves us…the sort of people who leave that sign as their valediction.

      These weren’t booksellers, or even employees, but wage units. You don’t build community from that.

  23. deadgod

      I agree with cory in that I think that disciplining the body in order to realize the deluding nothingness of bodily things (and of all things) seems self-contradictory–if consciousness is only ever consciousness of maya, then why not pain and grief? if they’re real enough to want to palliate, then that’s real enough?

      Also, if the disciplining is intense enough, one will ‘believe’ any target or excuse for undergoing it; the fruits of spiritual practice seem more unreliable than the veil of appearance that that practice is to pierce.

      –but one could suggest to cory that ‘trying to feel detached’ might make the accident of detachment more likely, which, in my puny understanding, is as much spiritual knowledge as “Buddhism” responsibly holds out.  –in both senses.

  24. mimi

      the ‘buddhist’ in me attempts to keep from from feeling ‘mean’ (ie ‘unkindly’) toward the corporate management (in this blogicle case)

      it is easy for me to feel _detached but compassionate_ when others experience pain or grief (and i am sure that even members of a corporate management machine feel these)

      i expect (_personally_, _myself_) to (‘bodily’) (we can have the mind-body discussion if you like) feel pain and grief – that _is_ life (‘_wacky_ life’)

      but i do find being kinda ‘buddhist’ in attitude helps me (practice detachment) when wanting to be ‘kind’ ‘compassionate’ tolerant’ etc etc

      when _really_ what i ‘want’ to be is ‘mean’ (and then it is usually for my own entertainment, not on behalf of any intrinsic sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’)



      like i ‘said’ above –

      or whatever


  25. mimi

      oh, or, and, or, yeah, whatever, um

      from from from from from from from from from


  26. Judson

      thoughtful post Matthew. thank you.

  27. Riley Michael Parker

      I agree with you to an extent, as everyone I know who works in the service industry is a great tipper, but I have also witnessed these same people talk to cleaning staff, delivery men, et cetera, with complete dismissal, or more commonly a dominant tone. It’s corporate conditioning. People tend to reinforce the pecking order, because they see it work so well. I do know, for a fact, that these people have the best intentions. Tip well, greet the help, be gracious, be sincere–but a single person’s vision only spreads so wide. You can only engage and validate so many people in a given day, so you pick your groups and go at it. I’m not belittling anyone by any means, as this is something that I too am affected by. There is no structure–as in government or simply socially (think high school, college, et cetera)–where this would not be the case, but in capitalistic societies, and more specifically within corporations, the weak punish the weak because there is no one else to go after. I live in Portland, a city full of bright, young, talented poor people, and we tend to punish people with a smile and a handshake. It’s a very passive-aggressive city, but I see it all the time. I’ve seen people over-tip as an insult! Can you believe that? Someone sitting in front of me with the attitude, “I am entitled to better service than you have given me, so I am going to tip you as if you went above and beyond, and then you’ll feel bad for not smiling more at such a thoughtful and giving individual.” It’s a different list of moves, but the same results. Now I’m just rambling, and I know it, so I’ll quit.

      But yes, the yelps of the world have added fuel to the fire, for sure.

      One last thing, Cvan… People do, at their core, want to be good to other people. I believe that, and if I am understanding you at all, I think you believe that too. Sometimes they just forget what that means. We are taught that spending money is the highest form of flattery, so a lot of people feel that this is enough. We would rather get time, and consideration, but it isn’t currency. Empathy is not the tool we are given to get what we want, and we all want.


  28. Riley Michael Parker

      I will do my best. What part?

      And thanks for engaging me.


  29. deadgod

      I might understand a little, but probably not much.

      Not meaning to invoke ‘mind/body’ as a problem; “bodily” is, to me, a more immediate way of saying ‘material’.  ‘A material thing is “known” by me to be material through my senses, my body.  Etc.’

      Corporate people definitely suffer.  The question, to me, of these people is a same question to ask of myself:  ‘how can this suffering be made an insight into and tool of empathy with a)  other suffering people, and b) reasonable lessening of and even solutions to suffering’s source(s)?’.

      ‘Detached compassion’, I’m pretty sure I don’t understand.  = ‘compassionate action with no expectation of direct personal gain’ ??

      I share your suspicion of some “sense” of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but I doubt that that suspicion is itself any less rationalizing than any such “sense”, because it too is an imposition – which might also be a discovery – of such a “sense” (“intrinsic” or not).  What the suspicion could be is more methodologically rigorous than some particular “sense” of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

  30. “Relationships first, sales second.” | HTMLGIANT

      […] further the conversation, here are two things about “community” and bookstores that have influenced my thinking […]

  31. mimi

      1. “bodily” is, to me, a more immediate way of saying ‘material’.  ‘A material thing is “known” by me to be material through my senses, my body.  Etc.’ – – – – – okay, got it, makes sense, let’s agree to agree semantically here, okay?

      2. Q: ” ‘how can this suffering be made an insight into and tool of empathy with a)  other suffering people, and b) reasonable lessening of and even solutions to suffering’s source(s)?’. ” 2. A: a) the detached compassionate posing of these lovely questions to all who will listen ? b) prayer ?3. Q;  ” ‘compassionate action with no expectation of direct personal gain’ ?? “3. A: yep, or at least ‘compassionate _being_ with no expectation of direct personal gain’ – no action required4. re: last paragraph, i smell a vicious circle heresorry if i don’t explain myself too well, deaders

  32. mimi

      well that ‘formatting’ sucks, doesn’t it ? ! ?

      : )

  33. mimi

      “she typed as she tried to reply to herself”

  34. deadgod

      2. A:  a)  Yes, posing questions; also, with arrogance and self-righteousness, asserting them more intrusively than “posing” them, if one is as shitty a Buddhist as I am.  b)  “[P]rayer?!  I was thinking of overcoming political economy practically–with, say, ‘democratic socialism’.  (As a gradualist, I’m also a shitty revolutionary.)

      3.  “_being_ […] no action required”:  I don’t think ‘human being without action’ will fly too far with Siddhartha, who was either the first shitty Buddhist or (still) the only accomplished Buddhist.

      4.  Yes, there’s a circularity – I don’t think there’s a way to escape acting (evaluation inclusive) “on behalf of a sense” of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  I think of practical entanglement as generative rather than vicious.

  35. mimi

      2. A: a) assert more intrusively, if you choose to do so, more power to ya; still, remain ‘detached’ from outcome . . .
      3. ‘jury still out’ on be v. act ?
      4. thinking of ‘practical entanglement’ as ‘generative’ sounds more optimistic and productive, yes, will pledge to try it! sincerely.

  36. mimi

      ps – okay, also, add 2. A: c) actively advocate democratic socialism