Saturday, September 10, 2011

Denouement for a bookseller

Borders press pass lanyard and earpiece. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 This weekend, I’ll pull my last shift as a bookseller, and if God is with me, my last retail shift ever. My Borders store hasn’t flatlined yet, but it’s just a matter of days, and I’ve decided to hang up my lanyard and radio earpiece a few days early. I'm worn out and worn down by the customers, most of which are bewildered and bitchy while picking apart the store. "When is your last day?" they'll ask. "When are the next discounts?" "Can you hold this for me?" "Do you have 'The Help?'"

Borders #376. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I’ve worked at store #376 for nearly three years and the Angel of Death has hovered over the store the entire time. Outsiders have an “84 Charing Cross Road” idea of booksellers, that we read on the job and hold forth on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky if ever given the chance. Well, the truth is, during my tenure, reading on the job at Borders was considered stealing from the company. And most folks wouldn’t know Tolstoy if he walked up and introduced himself. The job was mostly about getting product on the floor and getting customers to the product they wanted, and in some cases, didn't know they wanted. Along the way, there were titles we were told to push in order for the company to get some slack from the publishers, and within the past year a rewards program that we pushed that was a good value for the early subscribers, but not so for the last to sign up. People will say that the Kindle killed Borders. The truth is more complex than that - overexpansion during the height of the real estate market; five CEOs in five years, none of whom had bookstore experience; a corporate culture of waste. I could go on, but what's the point? Maybe someday, someone will write an e-book about what went wrong at Borders.

Shakespeare was here two weeks ago. Now it's fixtures awaiting pick-up. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  I'll miss many things about my job. My colleagues, who put the "q" in quirky. Some are long-term friends, from a previous independent bookselling gig, and some will continue to be my buddies. We get each other's jokes, something that has to do with not wincing when a customer asks for "Withering Heights" or mispronounces Albert Camus. I'll miss, too, the privilege of being around so much reading material. While reading on the clock was frowned on, reading on your lunch break was considered a right and the greatest perk of the job. I'd grab the latest magazines and newest cookbooks to peruse on my lunch hour. My friends and I would huddle around the table in the dingy breakroom, feeding our reading habits and ourselves.

Childcare/Psychology/Self-Improvement. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  I’ll miss a few of the customers and those precious bookselling moments where you sell a preteen her copy of “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret,” or a new mom “The Velveteen Rabbit” or a newly pregnant woman “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Bookstores are for ages and stages and now the experts tell us that the new age demands books via byte.

I don’t buy it. I think there will always be a market for tangible, dust-gathering books made of real, tangible, forest-clearing paper. Gutenberg had a good thing going and I think there will always be a market for brick and mortar bookstores. I just hope the grand poobahs of the remaining bookstores chains will find my suburban county and realize what a great location it is for a bookstore.

In 2006, a few years before he passed, John Updike addressed the BookExpo convention in Washington, D.C. His speech focused on Google’s plan to digitize books and how that would influence the writer; it ended with a call to arms for booksellers.

The full text of Updike's speech can be found here, but my favorite part is near the end: “Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

"So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.”

Now it seems the revolution has passed us by and there are fewer forts for us to defend.

And I’m not sure what hurts more – my feet or my heart.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

This story was published first on Open Salon, where it was selected as an Editor's Pick and received many comments from book lovers and those who embrace the e-revolution. Check it out here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, interesting read. My sympathies about working in retail. My daughter worked for Books a Million while in college and the holiday season just about ruined Christmas for her forever. As for who killed Borders, Amazon was doing that before Kindle came along. The ability to find good used books at reasonable prices by searching on line is probably also a factor.

It's sad to see the bookstores go, I'm of an age I still want a hard copy in my hands, be it a newspaper, magazine or book. So many things are changing, time will tell whether it's all for the better or not. Thanks for sharing.