Obituary for a chain bookstore
This is not an indie bookseller dancing on a chain bookstore grave. This is me pouring one out for the folks who taught me to love bookselling.
Borders Group announced last week that, by the end of January 2010, they expect to have closed 200 Waldenbooks bookstores (most of which at this point have been branded as Borders Express, actually). One of them is located at 268 Montgomery Mall, and it’s where a young Bookavore got her start.
As soon as I got my working papers, the Montgomery Mall Waldens was my first stop. My mom had worked there before her writing career took off, so it was easy to get hired. And, like most new hires in a bookstore, I was pretty sure I knew the drill: look at the books, read behind the counter, occasionally shelve when there was a cart of books around, have witty conversations about new fiction with cute guys, take home a stack of books at the end of the night purchased with massive employee discount.
(Here I pause so any bookseller reading can giggle a bit.)
Instead, here is what the drill was: Work hard. Enjoy yourself. Read on your own time.
A short list of bookselling skills I learned there would begin with the first lesson I learned on my first day (“if the book is in stock, then by God, you walk over to the section and you take the book off the shelf and you put it in the customer’s hands”) and would also include:
1. Every customer should be treated with respect, regardless of what they’re buying.
2. If you’re going to have to say the same spiel to every customer, practice until it’s 100% natural, and that way you won’t sound like a robot. (One of the managers would actually give us regular breaks in her office (by which I mean the mall hallway) to practice talking about the reader discount program, the special order process, etc.)
3. It’s okay not to like every book you read, and it’s double okay to tell customers when you don’t like a book, just don’t be an asshat about it.
4. You have to read to be a good bookseller, and you have to be familiar with what your co-workers read as well.
5. Chocolate truffles are a valuable bribery tool.
6. There are many, many creative ways in which to stack 400 copies of the same new hardcover.
7. Always double-check with someone before you say a book is out of stock. People often have their information wrong and it takes two people to figure out what the deal is. Also, the computer will be wrong half the time no matter what you do, so it’s worth it to look again.
8. Though computers make things more efficient in some ways, sometimes you just have to go with your gut when you’re ordering.
9. It doesn’t always matter how much foot traffic you have or how famous an author is: sometimes book signings just go terribly wrong.
10. People like their bookstores to have personality.
Does the last one sound like I shouldn’t have learned it under the corporate bookstore wingspan? I probably shouldn’t have. But I had a rogue manager. She ordered books from Koen when they weren’t available at the Waldens warehouse. She ordered books directly from Arcadia, stacked them on a table at the entrance because there was no section in the store in which to shelve them, and got an award from the Home Office for increasing “Local” sales by ridiculous amounts. She ignored mandated endcaps in order to keep a permanent endcap of her staff picks, which sold out the door in stacks. And she squished fiction to the side so that our receiver could have his own section. I think it was called “Weird Reads”—it was my introduction to The Sandman and Palahniuk and House of Leaves before those all became cool.
In their press release, in addition to using the reprehensible word “right-sizing,” Borders Group assures us that most of the 1500 people losing their jobs are part-timers. But that’s not true of most of the folks who taught me a lot of what I know about my job and, even more kindly, put up with me as a teenager. Not only are they full-time booksellers, but they’ve been working there for years and years, and they’re important to the community they serve despite the fact that they work for people whose ideas about bookselling I disagree with, and I am just as sad about their loss as I am when I read about an independent bookstore shutting its doors.
So this one’s for you, Sharon, Karen, Lisa, Laurie, Eric, and all the rest. I haven’t seen you in a few years, but I think of you every day at work, and I wish you all the best as another era in bookselling comes to an end.