Why I Hate That Borders Sign

Posted by @ 5:26 pm on September 21st, 2011

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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