Sunday, April 25, 2010

Death of a Bookseller: Part One, I Am Born



There are so many great, monolithic opening lines. Which would best describe the transformation of the company I loved?
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed"...no, that’s not it.  
"A screaming comes across the sky.  It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." Well, that’s kind of how it felt, but is perhaps a little portentous.
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Oh yes.  Yes indeed.
And, paraphrased for pinpoint accuracy: it was the best of times, and then it was the worst of times.   
I started at Borders in early 1994.  Back then, booksellers, famously, were required to take a book knowledge test as a condition of employment. That test was pretty hard; I’d estimate that 65 to 70 percent of any Borders’s staff in those early days would have gotten at least three of the four opening lines above. When I left Borders in December of 2009, nearly sixteen years later, I had worked my way up through the ranks and the book knowledge test was but a memory held by an anachronistic few. Just weeks before the final nail was driven into the coffin that had become my time with the company I and my peers had taken an online “training” module to get us ready for the holiday hiring season. In that module we had been explicitly told not to hire people with book knowledge or experience. 
What the fuck?
It was the best of times. And then...it was the worst.
But first, the best. When I walked into my first Borders job, on March 2, 1994, I felt like I was finally there. Home. Where I was meant to be. I had always been a reader; my first distinct memory is my “Mommy, I’m reading!” moment. I was about four when, as I recited  One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish  from memory the letters on the page became words and I knew what those words said. That book--pure, simple, elegant poetry--remains my favorite Dr. Seuss.  A few years later, for an extended period when I was in elementary school, I checked two books out of the school library every single day. During that, my first obsessive book event, I worked my way through the Childhood of Famous Americans series (originally published in the thirties and still in print today, these wonderful, innocent biographies introduced me to Florence NightingalePocahontasSacajawea, and more than a few famous men, as well). Later yet, in high school, still reading, I styled myself a bit of a loner, which was cooler than being the shy girl I actually was. After I’d taken up pot-smoking I once had the distinctive epithet “bookworm drug addict” spat at me by a now long-forgotten kid in the school library, a badge I wore proudly (if only in my own mind) for the rest of my time there. And I read all through college, not that it made my academic career shine particularly brightly.  

Still, I never thought I’d be able to make a life around books. After all, I wasn’t a talented enough writer to actually be a writer and was wary of even attempting to enter what I perceived as the cutthroat world of publishing, the only options I could conceive for a life of books in the pre-internet, pre-blog world. (Retail wasn’t even on my radar back then.) So I read the New York Times Book Review religiously, frequented library sales and bookstores, passed books back and forth with those few friends who were readers and occasionally pressed books upon my non-reading friends as well. 
My bookstores were mostly independents then: the charming, incredibly well-stocked Remarkable Book Shop in Westport (mourn its loss with me), the atmospheric if not terribly sophisticated Washington Street Book Shop just down the street from my little loft in SoNo, and the surprisingly extensive book section of Klein’s department store, also in Westport (Klein’s had a killer record section then, too).  But, in mid-1992 I read an article that redefined the bookstore and changed my life.  Entitled “The Book on Marketing,” the article appeared in the May 18th issue of  Newsweek.  It examined the new trend in bookstores: the superstore.  The article mentioned Barnes and Noble, which I knew from college jaunts into Manhattan, and Borders, which hadn’t yet made its way to my corner of the world.  These superstores, I learned, not only encouraged browsing but went out of their way to make stores comfortable (unlike my beloved Remarkable), with couches and comfy chairs, benches in the aisles, and cafes.  (I had seen a bookstore with a cafe, once, in Palo Alto, during my semester-off-from-college cross-country trip in 1983, and I’d even been to one in Georgetown with a beer and wine bar, but those were rare exceptions in my experience.)  Images of 100,000 plus titles all in one place were already dancing like sugarplums in my head, and then the article ratcheted it up even more.  Waldenbooks, it said, would soon open its first superstore, to be called Basset Bookshop, in Stamford, just down the road from where I lived.  
I went to Basset Bookshop on opening day and was immediately hooked.  It was light and airy.  The staff said hi and then left you the hell alone.  It was crowded with people and the background noise level was high and the energy exciting.  Music played.  Everywhere you looked were books and people reading books and talking about books and shelving books. Books and books and books.  I started at the As in the Literature section and worked my way through the Zs.  Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy...all the way through the alphabet every major author was represented by Cambridge, Norton, Oxford, Penguin, Rutledge editions...and those were just the trade paperbacks.  There were Everyman and Modern Library and Library of America in cloth, there were Bantam and Signet in mass market.  Barth and DeLillo and Pynchon were all there, and not just one or two titles but their entire backlist (although I didn't learn that word for another couple of years).  That day I bought a paperback copy of Moll Flanders , a remaindered hardcover of Thomas Sanchez's Mile Zero, a latte and a Danish in the cafe, and a Spanish language newspaper (which I got for free, in the name of customer service, because the store staff couldn't find the newsstand price list...Ellen Ross, the General Manager, created a customer for life with that gesture).

I went home and told my husband about this place and he--between jobs, again, and with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America--went down to Stamford the next day and got a job in the cafe at the Basset Bookstore.

Just over a year later he transferred to Phoenix as the Cafe Manager of the new Borders opening up on Camelback Road.  I stayed home to finish out the semester (my one semester as a grad student in English) and followed him out west a few months later.

2 comments:

Aeyan said...

Oh! On the edge of my couch waiting for the next installment!

Paul V. said...

Seriously, I wanna know your thoughts on the rest! Coooooommmmmmeeeee Oooooonnnnn