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.

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14 comments so far

  1. Sherry on

    Not only are you a good bookseller — taught by the best, I see — but you’re an excellent writer to boot. This post is so uplifting though its subject matter is sad. The closure of any bookstore isn’t good news, but Borders’s loss of passionate booksellers will be another’s gain.

    (P.S. — Point five is now, “Doughnuts are a valuable bribery tool,” right?)

    • bookavore on

      Thanks, Sherry! And to your postscript, an enthusiastic yes.

  2. Katherine on

    When I had the windfall when I was 12 of one month containing my birthday & middle school graduation & winning a bunch of academic awards at said graduation (each accompanied by $20), I found myself a very rich (by my scale) 12 year old. I took the whole shebang down to Waldenbooks at Danbury Fair mall, and (to the horror of every adult in my life) spent every cent of it on Star Trek books. It was heaven.

    RIP Waldenbooks. Oh, how I loved you.

  3. Mimi Hodgkins on

    Waldenbooks was a very important part of my life for many years, about20. I worked in Store #667 in Springfield, PA for 5 years, most of the time as the assistant manager until I moved to New Jersey and managed a store there for a while. I worked in the home office in Stamford, CT for 12 years, most of those years as supervisor of Store Services until the Waldenbooks operation moved to Borders Headquarters in MI. When books are in your blood, so to speak, it’s a life-time love. So I feel for those who are losing your jobs and will have to face the real world of unemployment while adjusting to life outside the book business, most likely.

    All the best to the dedicated booksellers out there…don’t ever stop straightening the shelves when you visit other book stores…it’s in your blood (and mine too.)

    Best regards,
    Mimi Hodgkins

    • Jim Fallone on

      I have one question Mimi… do you still flinch when you see the letters PG?

      Jim Fallone

  4. worldwidewhiskers on

    I didn’t set foot in an indie bookstore until I was in high school. I became a voracious reader because of the Waldenbooks in the Kings Plaza mall in Brooklyn, which was the only place my non-reading mom would ever have thought to take me.

  5. Caridad Pineiro on

    It really is hard to see so many bookstores closing. We lost our local Waldenbooks 3 or 4 years ago. A very supportive group and luckily, they have gone on to other jobs. I blogged about one of my favorite stores this morning and have started a drive to try and save it if you’d like to come by and help out. Just visit http://www.caridad.com/blog.

  6. Paul on

    As someone who has always dreamed of working in a bookstore but has never been able to (the restaurant business has had its firm grasp on me for many years now), this was a delightful look into the life of a bookseller.

    What’s hard is that I always half-hoped that my expectations of the fun of working in a bookstore must be entirely fictional, yet you have simply reinvigorated my dreams of someday working in one.

    Here’s hoping. Thanks for the post.

  7. Jim Fallone on

    My experiences as a Waldenbooks bookseller and manager of stores in Bridgeport, Trumbull and New Haven, Ct and my experience in the Home Office in Stamford as a buyer were invaluable to my career and insured I would have the honor to stay publishing for the last almost 30 years.

    Walden books not only made bestselling authors superstars but while I worked for them in Stamford they were instrumental in the creation of a lot of major new product categories and marketing and retail innovations.

    – They made purchasing your own copy of movies possible. (it wasn’t coincidence that the first direct to purchase videotapes were the same price and size as a hardcover bestseller.)

    – They were also one the the first to nationally retail computer games – ZORK anyone?

    – While the Amazon was still just a river Walden was capturing customer data and recommending other books they might like.

    – Walden had one of the countries first two fully automated robotic distribution center picking systems (I think UPS had the other one).

    – They moved bookselling beyond their brick and mortar stores before ecommerce by moving into direct mail and even had their own school bookfair company to take kids books right to the customer in school.

    I feel privileged to have been able to participate in these things but still my fondest memories are back in the stores as a bookseller like…

    – discovering a new author as I stripped covers off mass market books in the backroom.

    – The night in Bridgeport when a very …very large man walked right up to the video spinner by the cash wrap, picked it up and walked right out, down the length of the mall, past security and out the door.

    – meeting my soon to be wife for a romantic dinner in the fanciest restaurant I had ever been in and have her wait until desert to point out I still had my yellow bookseller badge on.

    Jim Fallone

    • bookavore on

      Haha! I, too, cannot count the number of new authors I’ve discovered stripping books.

  8. Lisa Alba on

    Everything you have said is true and more! I worked on and off for Waldens for 30 odd years, I mean that figuratively and literally! Our store closed a year ago last July, and even though I was very part time by then, I miss it very much! My whole family works in with books as authors, booksellers, and distributors, and as a group, mourn the loss of our local Waldenbooks. I still love the customer who comes in looking for a purple colored book that was on the front counter 3 months ago, and darned if we couldn’t come up with it 9 times out of 10! Thank you for bringing back the memories!

  9. Heather M. Riley on

    Beautiful post. Some of my fondest, earliest memories are of shopping at the local Waldenbooks. Unfortunately both of the Waldenbooks in my immediate area have already closed. One several years ago (though most of the stores in that mall closed) the other 2 years ago when B&N moved into the same mall.

    I currently work in a Borders Superstore and when me and my co-workers saw the announcement of the closings on our internal communication we were sickened – and scared. I hate that they mention the part-time thing like that makes it better or even ok.

    I will always miss both my Waldenbooks stores and will hope and pray that this is the last of the closings.

  10. Kendra on

    Hey stranger. Remember me?

    This was forwarded to me, and I agree. Unequivocally. I quit my 11-year-part-time position at the store this past January (when Laurie and Karen were let go in the first wave; ’twas a sign of solidarity, you see). And I’ve been lamenting ever since …

    Who mourns the loss of a second job? Me!!

    I would def prefer a nice, indie store. But there are none in my area. And so, Borders Express (when the name was changed, I was appalled; I had the hideous urge to offer every customer fries, I must confess) was my haven. A place to sate my bibliophilia (it’s terminal, I fear). A place to kibitz with others of a similar affliction, surrounded by our addiction — dedicated to it!

    Congrats to you on your current gig. I’m quite green! My retirement plan is to open a used bookstore. Totally. I only have 35+ years to go 😉

  11. Sarah on

    Just wanted to say that Waldenbooks gave me my start in bookselling as well, and it makes me sad to think the place I poured my sweat and post-college exuberance into will soon become a Five Below or something similarly depressing.

    My store (667–district manager hub!) was the place where I planned my first author signing ever (Lloyd Alexander, God rest his soul, and Judy Schachner, who got me my current job at Children’s Book World). I learned how to make a schedule, how to get around corporate buying errors by using Koen, how to keep a smile on my face after working double shifts four days in a row, and how to block out the blaring Christmas music that started the day after Halloween and crept into our store from the mall. Although the grass for me is much greener on the indie side of things, I will say that Waldenbooks made it abundantly clear that children’s books were where I belonged, and for that I’m immensely grateful.


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