March 19, 2011

They're Closing "My" Borders Store

I heard on the radio as I drove home yesterday that the Borders bookstore in Buckhead, Atlanta was now on the closings list.  I realized I was holding my breath when the news report ended.

I really thought they'd dodge the bullet.  It's so big!  It was there first!  It's awesome!  Some of the best booksellers in the world work there!  Noooooo!

I started working at bookstores when I moved to Atlanta in the early 90s.  First a Scribner's.  When that closed I went to the Barnes & Noble on Peachtree.  That was way too corporate and six months later, a colleague who had jumped over to the new Borders store lured me over.  It was the summer of '96 and I stayed there, mostly happily, until I went into teaching in 2000.

When I started they had a "book knowledge" test.  I nailed it.  That was one of the reasons they had so many knowledgeable employees.  Not long after that, they had to give it up for legal reasons.  Just the idea of having to take a book knowledge test kept away some of the less desirable employees.  You know, the ones who think working in a bookstore must be easy.  Heh.

Now I know, some of you think these big box book stores closed down a ton of independents.  Maybe that's true.  We were always getting a hard time from some people in the area because some of the Oxford bookstores started closing up around the same time.  They were a beloved Atlanta institution.  But ask any former Oxford employee and they'll tell you that those were driven into the ground by the Dickensianly-named owner Rupert LeCraw.  That guy was the one who mis-managed Oxford Books.

At the time there were more B&N owned stores in the area than Borders, but all of the Oxford folks I knew came over to Borders.  None of them dreamed of going to B&N.  I thought that was telling.

I think it was because Borders had spawned from a college bookstore and still had that vibe.  There were many in the company that had connections to the original store in Michigan and there was a story there.  Now it was still a chain and it seemed even then to be growing a bit too fast (and not taking online bookselling seriously enough) but there was a respect for customers and bookselling that I just didn't feel over at B&N.  Managers were promoted from within at Borders.  At B&N they were brought over from unrelated retail chains.

But the thing about that particular store I worked in was the people.  Below I've linked to three that have an online presence.  Brannon, Toni and Doret.  Those are three amazing booksellers. Brannon is literally and award-winning one.  There were many more great folks I worked with.  It was always exciting to come to work.  There were always at least half a dozen really smart, funny people working at any one time that were thoughtful, creative, brilliant conversationalists and not a little nutty.

We had to put up purchased merchandising displays, but also had the freedom to create our own.  There were corporate guidelines but initiative was rewarded.  And, at least when I was there, being part of the community was important.  One of the many jobs I did (bookseller, backroom stocker, cafe, music, supervisor, children's dept. supervisor, special orders, etc.) included community outreach.  In that capacity I helped set up events (including author signings, children's events, musicians) and decided about donations.  I got to make rules about giving out money and books! (Organizations benefitting old people and kids first!)  I got to listen to free CDs and book the bands!  Not just pop, either.  I brought in African drummers, classical guitarists, jazz fusion, swing, folk, etc.  My friend John and I approached a shopping Tom Wolfe and were later credited for his deciding to hold his big gala A Man in Full book signing at our store when it first came out.

But again, it was the friendships and discussions I had with passionate, geeky booksellers that made that time so special.  Some of them went on to become published writers, bloggers and composers themselves.  All of them made it a great place to be post-college pre-teaching.  There's a Borders nearby I shop at sometimes.  It's nice, but it's definitely not the same.  The Buckhead store was a unique place and will be sorely missed.


Sew Transformed

The Happy Nappy Bookseller