Friday, September 16, 2011

When I Worked At Borders

I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve been a retail clerk, a waitress, a childcare provider, a receptionist, a high school English teacher, and now a freelance writer extraordinaire (tell your friends!) I even had a three-hour stint as a telemarketer, where I harassed people at home for money. I called myself Cassandra, because I’ve always liked the name Cassandra, and because I was so ashamed I couldn’t admit my real name. I may have also talked in a hybrid English/ Scottish accent unique to the region of my head.

My favorite job, however, was the year-and-a-half I spent as an employee at Borders Books and Music in Buffalo, New York.

You can see where this post is going.

If you love books, there’s obviously no better place to work than a gigantic bookstore. God, I loved that store. After I was unexpectedly fired from a position a week after September 11th (a sad story for another day), I applied at just one place: the bookstore I retreated to when I wanted to get away from it all. I was hired and put in charge of the children’s department. Soon after, I was promoted to training supervisor. Later, I popped out a 9.8 lb child. It hurt so bad, I decided not to work again for a long time.

I’ve got great stories from that place. My second week there, I overheard a guy talking about me in the back warehouse. (I was the new girl, so I was subject to scrutiny.) No one noticed my searching for a book among the warehouse stacks, because I am quiet, like a little library mouse. (I was skinny back then.) One of the sales clerks said to his girlfriend, and I quote: “Yeah, she’s hot, but she’s dumber than a bag of nails.”

Now, if this had happened yesterday, I would’ve dismissed the dumber-than-a bag-of-nails bit and focused on the hot part. I would’ve been delighted! Back then, though, my skinny butt was mortified. And stuck.

How was I going to get out of the back room without being discovered?

By crawling! On the floor. Where I came face to face with my newly-formed arch nemesis. Or rather, face to knee.

“Just… getting something,” I whispered. Then I got to my feet, walked briskly out, and cried for twelve hours straight.

“They think I’m stupid!” I sobbed to my husband.

“Who cares?” he said.

“We’ve never even had (snivel) a conversation (snivel) before… why would he say such a thing? Why does he hate me?”

“He didn’t say he hated you.  He said you were dumber than a bag of nails."

“I won’t go back there! I WANT TO DIE!”

I went back. Aside from a few awkward encounters that involved me shoving my GRE scores in a certain person’s face, all was forgiven.

The store was large, with books that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Literature, biographies, memoirs, books about science, business, anthropology, cooking… you name it; Borders had it. The literature was on the far left, bargain books toward the front, the expansive music department filled the back. Borders employed people from all walks of life: freaky looking teenagers with shaggy hair and rings hanging out of their noses to grandmotherly types who manned the registers during the holidays. Some employees had been there for many years, taking comfort in the daily routines, the quiet of the store in the early morning, and the assurance that there would always be books to stock, people to help, titles to track down.

As a training supervisor, I made sure new employees knew where popular books like Tuesdays with Morrie, Founding Fathers, and The Millionaire Next Door were located. I taught café workers how to make a frothy cappuccino and music employees how to re-wrap CD cases that had been ripped open.

The store was full of interesting, quirky people, including the customers. I mainly resided in the children’s book department, where I stocked shelves, gave impassioned readings of The Monster at the End of this Book and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket during Saturday morning story hour, and was a brave arbiter during a divorced couple’s weekly Sunday morning child swap.

One evening, a graduate student came in and demanded books that had pictures of Lake Ladoga in Russia. She needed it for a presentation that was due the next day.

“I find it hard to believe you don’t even have a calendar with a picture of Lake Ladoga in it,” she said.

“We have calendars of the Finger Lakes,” I suggested. “Your classmates probably wouldn’t know the difference.”

She left in a huff.

Another day a Krispy Kreme opened next door, and we welcomed a whole new breed of clientele, like the man who came in every Saturday, selected five different magazines, and carried them (along with a half-eaten donut) into the bathroom for a mid-morning poo. I was made aware of this tradition by the café staff who had been watching this take place for weeks, but were too fearful to say anything.

“He goes to the bathroom, and then he returns the magazines to the shelves!” We agreed this was gross. I confronted him, and it went really, really well. I offered to hold his magazines while he did his business, he handed them over, and we never saw him again.

Another time, I confronted a woman who was taking advantage of the free coffee sample promotion we had going on. This did not go as well. To this day, I argue that filling your travel mug with coffee meant for sampling is “stealing.”

I had close encounters with celebrities. I sold Ani DiFranco some tea, took Rudy Giuliani to the bathroom, and helped a woman chase down Johnny Cochran at the airport after he gave a talk in our store. (She really believed he would take her case.)

And then there were the perks you weren’t supposed to talk about. I read The Lovely Bones, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Stupid White Men, and The Nanny Diaries before they were released to the public.

I listened to “Sweet Baby James” over 100 times on the loudspeaker.

The first time I puked after I became pregnant was in the Borders women’s bathroom, and the first book I bought for my son, I Am a Bunny by Richard Scarry, was purchased on a Monday before I left the store for the night.

Every now and again, I would go back and visit. Two years ago, I was unnerved to discover that the music selection, once the largest in Buffalo, had dwindled down to a few paltry shelves full of movie soundtracks, copies of Bach’s Greatest Hits, and the latest Britney Spears. There were, however, shelves full of stationary, lip gloss, journals, iPod cases, and other gift items.

I cried when I heard they were closing.

I don’t want to discuss why they failed- it’s moot at this point- I just want to say that my store was a really great store, and thousands of other Borders employees feel the same way about their stores.

Borders employed stores full of book lovers. And what better people to work with than with book lovers? And is there a better work environment than one filled with books? (And scones. Lots of scones.)

This Sunday, the last Borders stores will close their doors forever, including the flagship store in Ann Arbor.

I will miss them.

Think you could have worked at Borders? Take the quiz! It’s fun!


Michelle said...

Very best experiences! What a dream to work in a bookstore. I still haven't converted to the world of ebooks yet... I really, really want a book I my hand. It is the same as how a blog can't take the place of a handwritten journal. I'm sorry to hear about Borders closing. We still have 4 book stores in our town that I long to visit....ALONE!

Btw- I had a similar experience at my first job out of college. I was using the administrative assistant's computer as I didn't have one of my own. I found a "chat" about me that eluded to the thoughts that I was a lesbian!! I cried and cried. It was something about a lesbian that wears dresses. Either way...ten years later one of those chatters is one of my dearest friends who loves to laugh about that story. I would've loved to be referred to as "hot" as opposed to lesbian...even hot for a lesbian would've between nice.

Toaster said...

So sad...The Monster at the End of this Book was one of my favorites.

MGBR said...

This *is* sad. However, last night our local library board chairman called to report that he had just arranged for the purchase of 50 shelves from Borders, to be installed in our lovely new library next spring. I hope it will be of some comfort to you to know that part of the store will be nobly re-purposed. You are most welcome to visit the shelves -- and us -- anytime.

Holly said...

Michelle- you crack me up. At Borders, I was in the minority. Most of the employees were gay or lesbian.

Marsha- which Borders? Buffalo? I will come and pay homage to the shelves sometime.

MGBR said...

Orchard Park - Tom clarified for me this afternoon.