Goodbye, Borders

History Book Club at Borders Store #10 in Rockville, MD

By now most of you are aware that Borders Books & Music has closed up shop.  The reasons for the closure are many from the company’s failure to jump on the e-book bandwagon to the exorbitant rents it paid for specific locations.  Eric Wittenberg has reflected on his experience as a long-time Borders customer.  I am also just a bit sad about the end of Borders.  Yes, I was a customer for many years but for a few short years in the 1990s I was an employee.

I worked for Borders Store #10 in Rockville, Maryland from 1994 to 1998.  At the time I was a graduate student studying philosophy at a local university so the bookstore was a way to make a little extra cash.  I distinctly remember the two weeks of training, which included a book test as well as extensive practice on customer relations.  It was the perfect job for me and I quickly fell in love with the place.  Because of my education I was considered to be the go-to person for the philosophy and religion sections.  My responsibilities included having to keep that section organized and well stocked, but the best part was the opportunity to interact with the customers.  We were expected to spend time building relationships with customers by answering questions and suggesting appropriate titles.  It rarely felt like a job.

Now that I look back on my four years at Borders what truly stands out in my memory are my co-workers.  Many of them were current college students or had recently graduated and were contemplating their next move.  That turned out to be me once I finished my masters degree and having friends in the same situation proved to be incredibly comforting.  We supported one another and were there to listen when the future appeared bleak.  I certainly had my share of those moments during this period.  It would have been much more difficult for me had I not had the support of my co-workers.

In fact, looking back I now see the extent to which their support helped push me forward to where I am today.  I fell in love with American history and the Civil War era while an employee.  We had a well stocked Civil War section, which I could take advantage of at any time.  I bought quite a bit with my employee discount and the the Christmas discount could not come soon enough.  I devoured books during my break, while working the register and even in between helping customers in the few secluded corners of the store.  While the ordering department did an adequate job stocking a wide range of Civil War titles I was always encouraged to special order anything I thought deserved a place on the shelves.

In 1996 I started a Civil War book group which met once a month.  It was a great group of people and we were all passionate about the history.  Every month we met having read a book.  The discussions were often heated, but always respectful and always focused on the book.  I invited as many authors in as possible to join us.  Some of them were truly shocked to find themselves in the hot seat rather than simply having to autograph a few books.  A few of the authors who joined us included Craig Symonds, Kevin C. Ruffner, and Ira Berlin.

One of my best friends at the store was a former White House aide to Richard Nixon.  He sort of took me under his wing, but one day he suggested that since I read so many Civil War books that I should write a review for The Washington Times, which ran a Civil War page every Saturday.  I had never thought about publishing anything previous to this and the suggestion proved to be crucial for my overall trajectory.  Another experience that stands out is attending a publishing party for Charles Frazier’s bestseller, Cold Mountain.  I remember having a wonderful chat with Frazier, but what really stands out is trying to keep up with P.J. O’Rourke at the bar – truly one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.  That was a very bad miscalculation on my part and long night.

The highlight of my time at Borders was without a doubt what I called “Civil War Day.”  I organized a day-long event that included some of the most popular Civil War authors in the D.C. area.  It was an absolute blast and I had the full support of the store managers, who understood how important it was to me.  Authors included Edwin Fischel, Ernest Ferguson, William D. Matter, and Brian Pohanka.  I invited Union and Confederate reenactors to share their craft as well as a drum and fife unit.  The day was a huge success, but more importantly it was the kind of thing that helped to instill a bit of confidence in myself.

What I appreciate most was the encouragement from my friends that I get back into teaching, which I did.  I ended up teaching as an adjunct at a local community college, but one day a co-worker suggested that I apply for a teaching position at a math and science school in Mobile, Alabama, which I did as well.  I am so glad I did because a beautiful woman living in New York City answered the very same job ad. :-)

To me Borders will always be more than just another company.

15 thoughts on “Goodbye, Borders

  1. Ray O'Hara

    Book stores are going through the same massacre Record/CD stores went through. a few years back.
    Try to find a Strawberries or Good Vibrations in a shopping center.
    The internet is killing off the “brick and mortar” stores even WalMart is worried.

    Borders will be missed just as B.Dalton is and I won’t be surprised to see Barnes&Nobles go next.
    What I hate the most is the loss of going to a bookstore and finding on the shelve a book I always wanted but didn’t know existed, that doesn’t happen with Amazon,.
    Online you have to know what you’re looking for, the browse and find experience is lost.

    To me an ever more heartbreaking closure was the non-chain McIntyre & Moore Rare and Used bookstore that started in Harvard Square, and later moved to Davis Sq in Somerville. bookstores didn’t come any better and the prices were lower than anywhere else.

    Harvard Sq used to be bookstore heaven, now they are mostly gone as the Square is taken over by national fashion chains who themselves are under threat.

    The internet is mostly wonderful but I hate what it is doing to retail stores

    Reply
  2. Rob Wick

    Kevin,

    Even though I work for “the competition” I agree with you regarding how sad it is to lose Borders. As you and others have pointed out, the reasons for the closure are varied and numerous, but in the end that doesn’t matter as much as the human equation–the number of people out of a job and the number of customers who will have one less place to get their book fix.

    Ray, I seriously doubt that Barnes and Noble will be next to close. We have positioned ourselves in such a way that between Nook (which now has about 30 percent of the e-book market) and our expansion into other products (believe me, I’m not happy with that aspect of things as a bookstore purist, but then again whatever keeps the doors open is preferable to rigidly maintaining nostalgic nonsense….I imagine somewhere there is a person who can’t stand to listen to music on anything but a 78) we will be able to keep things moving forward. What I fully expect to see happen is for some cities that have more than one BN to close the underperforming stores.

    I will agree that the Internet is what will hurt the bricks-and-mortar presence. We are competing in the store with our own website. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “I’ll just buy it online” I could expand my own library considerably. But, by the same token, if I could save $15 on the cost of a book and get free shipping to boot, I’d be nuts not to take advantage of it.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
    1. Ray O'Hara

      B&N has gotten into the ebook/online business, so the corporation should survive
      but that still won’t protect the physical brick and mortar stores of the chain. why pay rent on buildings and pay to staff them when all they really need is a website and a regional/national distribution center.

      Reply
      1. Rob Wick

        Because there are still a large number of people who want physical books, a place to look at them and the other amenities that the store provides. I don’t know what will happen 20 or 30 years from now, but the bricks and mortar business model will not die out anytime soon.

        Best
        Rob

        Reply
        1. Ray O'Hara

          I hope you’re right Rob and my fears are unfounded but I hold little hope.
          I really find reading books on my computer unsatisfying.
          I’ve been working my way through the US Army’s excellent “Green books” and I don’t still and read for hours like I can with a paper page book.

          Reply
  3. Bjorn Skaptason

    Hi Kevin,

    As a guy who makes his bread at an indie bookseller I get no satisfaction over the loss of Border’s. They did some things very well, including some of the things you remember fondly. They created a wonderful experience for book lovers and literature lovers.

    Lest the subject get depressing, remember that your independent book stores are still out there, and they are searching for innovative ways to keep the love of books – as distinct from a general love of reading – alive.

    I have even noticed that your own blog features a link to a hi tech online book discussion sponsored by one of the oldest independent book shops in the country. :-).

    Thanks for your support.

    Reply
  4. Keith

    Kevin, I know the feeling. I worked for a different bookstore company in the 1990s and have noted with sadness that, while it is still hanging on, it too has closed many of it’s brick and mortar locations.

    Quick story–I was in Greenwich Village about a year ago and dropped into a record store I frequented in the late 1990s. The store used to be filled with hipsters looking for the latest thing. Sadly, there was literally not another customer in the place. IPods, etc have rendered record shops obsolete.

    I will always be thankful for online retailers but I miss the serendipity of the book and music shops, where you never knew when a conversation with a stranger might lead you in a different path musically and intellectually.

    Reply
  5. Scott MacKenzie

    I will miss Borders. When I lived in the Toronto area, I frequently visited their Buffalo store. It was worth the commute because their service, selection and prices were infinitely superior to the Chapters-Indigo chain in Canada. Last time I ordered from the latter, I waited for SIX MONTHS and it never arrived. Borders was always on time, as were Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  6. Wayne Hsieh

    Ray, I bought my very nearly complete set of the OR (maybe 7 volumes short) from McIntyre & Moore, when it was in Davis Square.

    I’ve heard they still exist, but are now in Porter Square.

    Reply
    1. Michael Lynch

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major bookstore that had a more complete history section than the Borders on Kingston Pike in Knoxville. I did practically all my book shopping there or at the used bookstore nearby.

      –ML

      Reply
  7. Johnny UnReconstructed

    Good story and wonderful responses. Thanks for sharing. I still miss Borders and frequently gave ‘them’ by money. These responses make me regret not enjoying Borders a tad more…

    Reply

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