Someone Should’ve Tought Borders Math

One of my store’s managers told me this tonight. He’s in a better position than I am to know, so I take what he told me at face value. I freely admit that I am recounting this information from my brain, and that I may have missed over some key items, or misunderstood others.

Borders closed its highest performing stores, often times profitable stores, because by selling them to liquidators Borders could generate enough cash to qualify for GE Capital’s loans and keep the rest of the company afloat for another year or possibly two. So, for example, our lease at 18th & L was $1.4 million a year. Our sales were around $7 million per year, and we were making a profit.

We made Borders money. They didn’t lose money on us.

And we’re closing despite that. We’re closing because the value of our stock means that for the short term survival of the company, our profitable store had to go.

The longer I’m still here, the more it fucking hurts. The good news is, I’ve just got over a week to go. The better news, for myself, is that I’ve got my first interview for a potential new part-time job tomorrow afternoon. Alas, it’s not with Politics & Prose, but that’s got more to do with their silly no-part-time employees policy than anything else.

UPDATE

A former coworker, now at another store, wrote me this:

Not really …, the stores that they closed were bleeding money. Leases and taxes were too much, 18th & L was losing 2.5 million a year or more. They also kept stores that were losing money but not as much.

Liquidation

I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to work yesterday or not. In fact, until I actually walked in the front door, I hadn’t committed myself either way. As I walked to the store from Franklin Square, I eyed the L2 waiting to start its route and thought quite seriously about jumping onto the bus and riding it all the way home. In the end, I didn’t. I went to work, as I was scheduled to do so, and as I’d committed myself when I’d turned in my notice.

That wasn’t easy. And not just because of the emotional impact of turning in my notice. Like, literally, management was refusing to take it on Thursday night, my first shift since the closing was announced. My GM called me into his office and we spoke for about twenty minutes. We laughed a bit, mostly at customer expense. We talked about what liquidation meant for the store. And when the topic came to my departure, the talk took a serious, and literally threatening tone.

Borders is apparently threatening to blackball all employees at closing stores who end their employment before liquidation is complete. In other words, if you want a shot at employment at another Borders, you’ve gotta stay to the bitter end — not just the last day the store is open to customers, but the days afterward, too, when remaining books are packaged up, fixtures are loaded onto trucks, until all that remains is the tattered bones of a once wonderful bookstore. In addition, Borders is apparently threatening not
to provide references to those employees leaving early.

I gotta admit – I was kind of aghast when I heard this. What does Borders gain by such threats? Almost more to the point, what do people gain responding to such threats? Frankly, there are so few Borders left in Metro range, there are a lot of employees who are (figuratively) up shit’s creek without any paddle.

I promised to consider the matter over my shift, but at the end, I decided my original decision was correct and turned the notice in.

Thursday night was dead slow. I’ve rarely seen the store so empty. I guess everyone either thought we were closed, or decided there was no point buying something that night when liquidation sales would start up in a few days. Where Thursday was slow, Sunday was packed busy, like Christmas time or something. Huge crowds. Long lines. The entire store, a mess. Piles of books on tables, shelves, and scattered over the floor. A customer accidentally knocked over half a shelf of books. She started to pick them up, I interrupted her, “No, don’t worry, it’s okay.”

Today was busy, but kind of fun. Apparently payroll is no longer a consideration, so we had lots of staff. Part of me wants to point out to Borders’ upper management that if they hadn’t restricted payroll so much when the store was open and not facing bankruptcy, that we could’ve provided really great service on the floor and short waits at the registers and might’ve convinced more people to shop in our store than at, say, anywhere else. Oh well. I’m not thinking too much of what is laughingly called “executive management”, especially since the company’s newly promoted “Executive Vice President of Operations” said on a phone conference announcing store closures his belief that bankruptcy was not the result of poor decisions by said upper management, but on lack of effort from sales staff.

You know what, Mr. EVP of Operations? I’ve seen your LinkedIn profile. It’s a list of companies that have filed for bankruptcy and no longer exist. At some point, you need to stop blaming other people and accept responsibility for your own failures. Also at some point, you’d think someone would glance at your resume and decide that, if they want to keep their organization running, they’d probably better pass on hiring you.

In any case. Thursday night was the last night the cafe was open. Cafe staff now work our registers and on the floor. We blocked the cafe off, and with no cafe, we were able to padlock the restrooms. Apparently, not everyone got the message since someone broke into the men’s room. The restrooms were always a pain: from homeless folks bathing themselves in the sink, to potheads getting high and lighting them on fire, to thieves concealing merchandise and stealing our toilet paper, to crazies being, yanno, crazy, and punching other folks in the face.

So, in no particular order, here’s what I liked else best about today:

1. Not caring about customers. Okay, that’s not true. Not caring about whining customers. One of the things we’re required to do is remove the yellow sticker from the back of books and, with a marker, draw a line through the bar code. One gentleman became very upset when I told him I had to do this and threatened to walk away from a $300 order unless I abstained. I asked him if he was certain, he said he was. I promptly picked up his books, deposited them on the shelf behind me, told him to have a nice day, and called the next customer down. At some point, I guess he didn’t realize we weren’t particularly interested if he shopped here again or not.

2. The guy who complained about titles we were out of stock on and asked when we’d be getting new books in. Apparently he doesn’t understand what liquidation means?

3. Everyone who complained. About whatever. Music with dirty lyrics. No Wi-Fi. No cafe. No seating. Seriously, folks? I am more concerned with the gross domestic product of Micronesia than whatever it is you feel is so important you must bring it to my attention because apparently you’re far too stupid or classless to even show (or pretend to show) a figment of concern for all the folks losing their jobs.

4. All the customers who said that they were so sorry the store was closing, and especially the few who went further and expressed concern for the employees. There are quite a few customers I enjoy seeing and try to chat with. A lot of times, I don’t know their names. Frequently, I know what they’re reading. I’m hoping I’ll see them in the next week and a half or so before my employment ends.

But things are dismal. I think a lot of us are hiding our dismay in humor. A lot of folks — good folks, people who’d been with the company for decades — found out they’ll be getting no severance pay. At all. And while a few full-timers might find positions at “going forward” stores, a lot won’t.

I’m going to miss this place. A lot.

Franzen on eBooks

I have a confession to make. It’s one avid readers might find hard to believe, especially coming from someone who, after sixteen years working a variety of jobs in all industries and sectors, describes his now practically defunct career as a bookseller as his favorite work ever, and yet it’s the one I come to: I’ve never read Jonathan Franzen.

If your first reaction is “Who?” followed by a move to read something else in your Reader, hold on a second, because this isn’t about Franzen, and really, it’s only about reading in the most general way.

Any, honestly, the first paragraph is a lie anyway. I’ve read sixty pages of Franzen’s The Corrections — this past week, matter of fact — which was pretty much to the point where I realized if I kept reading the book, I was going to drag his character Chip out of the pages of the book and beat the asshole to death with, well, I don’t know – I don’t have a baseball bat in my apartment. I guess I could drop a ton of books on the guy, if he’d be considerate enough to stand still long enough for me to do so. Goodness knows I don’t have enough quality wine in my apartment to encourage him to stick around.

A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I was at all interested in going with her to see Franzen speak at an event sponsored by the PEN/Faulkner foundation at the National Cathedral. I said “Sure!”, truthfully, less because I’m interested in Franzen, and more because I’m interested in her.

Well, anyway.

Until tonight, this is what I knew about Franzen:

1. He and Oprah had a spat over her including The Corrections on her Book Club. At some point, they made better, and she put Freedom (his first book in nine years) onto the Book Club again.

2. Franzen was on the cover of Time last year.

3. He likes to write about people on the toilet. I know this via The Washington Post’s book critic Ron Charles, courtesy of this video.

So after a few hours eating up and down Wisconsin Avenue, we made our way to the National Cathedral, took our seats, and sat through a 30 minute reading and a 30 minute Q&A. I was really tempted to smack a guy two rows ahead of me who flagged down a microphone, then instead of passing it back to the event manager, gave it to his girlfriend. You two know who you are, and your questions were laaaame.

What wasn’t lame was a question someone asked him about electronic verses print books. I’m paraphrasing here, because I didn’t have a pen with me, but he said that books in their physical form were just nice objects to have around. And that while sure eBooks for textbooks or other research material might be just fine, there’s something reassuring about a physical bound book. That a physical bound book is the embodiment of a rock carving.

I’ve made this point to folks who’ve embraced eBooks: look, someday? You might be wealthy beyond all imagination. You’ll have a nice fancy apartment, or a big huge mansion. And maybe somewhere in your home you’ll have a big library with a gorgeous brick fireplace, huge windows, and decoratively carved mahogany bookshelves. Luxurious chairs and tables will create wonderful reading nooks. But those mahogany bookshelves? What exactly are you going to have on them?

I’ve Loved You All

I am writinmg this drunk, because I don’t know I could write it sober.

Please excuse all grammatical errors, run on thoughts, yada-yada. I’ve had six beers, courtesy of a well-timed day-job happy hour at Dog’s Head Tavern in Bethesda. I paid for none of the drinks I’ve had tonight: I think my love for working in Borders was well known. Even the new sales guys, who I barely new, bought me a drink or two. Maybe they just did that so I wouldn’t regal them with funny storiews of working in Borders.

In any case, I hope you will excuse all of the un-whatever errors within this post. Unsharpened? Uncorrected? I told myself back in December that if for whatever reason this store, my store, 18th & L, would close, I would put in my two weeks immediately. And so when I saw that tweet from The Wall Street Journal with a list of closing Borders, and I scanned it, I honestly did not expect to see my store’s number on there. And yet, there it was: 0050.

My heart broke.

Don’t get me wrong. Borders as a company, as a brand, probably deserves to die. Mismanagement well chronicled by far smarter people than I have chronicled the company’s failures. Email me in a couple days and I can point you to some good articles. My favorite is the financial analyst who said Border’s decision to outsource eCommerce to Amazon was a “jackass move.” WIN, sir! Win.

Except fail. Because while I could leave Borders The Company in a heartbeat, leaving Borders The Store is not quite so easy. I’ve worked at that store, on the corner of 18th & L, for just shy of three years. April 10th, 2011, would be my third year anniversary. Man. I’m almost on the verge of tears here. I mean … I’m not. But fuck man. I loved working there. Loved the store. Especially loved the staff. Greg. Lisa Wilson. Sallie Brown. The Gay Robs. Hell, the straight Robs. The cafe ladies. The register bitches. Even some of the managers. The surly intellectual magazine snob Josh. The store detective, C******* (my first boss). Adam. Korye. Cathy. Lynsey. Margaret. Erin. The Rachaels. Stephen in the stockroom. Michael. Ty. April. Man, I’m losing track of names here. I LOVE YOU ALL. Well, most of you. The asshole who was charging people for gift cards and then stealing them for himself? You can go fuck yourself.

BAKHTI! FAHAD! JIM!

Let me tell you a story. It’s a long story. I don’t know how coherent I’m going to tell this. Bare with me. (I;m listening to Queen. Queen makes everything better. Don’t know they’re acytually helping, but I’m trying).

Many years ago, I was in my 20s. I’m now 32. Anyway, I wasted my twenties. What I wouldn’t give to go back to my freshman year of high school knowing what I know now. I’d've been awesome. Anyway, twenties = wasted. Bummed through too many years of college before dropping out. Worked too many dead end stupid horrible jobs before realizing I really needed that degree to be anything in life. Had a great two semesters back at Towson where I realized how much more successful I’d've been in college if I’d spent some time in the Real World first. Oh well. Got my degree, eight months later, found a job in Bethesda. Office work. Salary. Decent benefits. A bit on the drudge side. Sometimes I take it for granted.

Realized driving from Timonium to Bethesda every day would suck. Found an apartment in DC (Woodley Park). Realized I could make it work if I didn’t have a car payment: sold my car to my dad. No more car payment, no more car insurance. Decided I should get a part-time job, too. Done with pizza delivery, started looking at bookstores. Filled out apps for Kramers, Olssen’s, Borders, Barnes & Noble.

Borders called me first. Spoke to Rebecca. I miss her terribly. Tall blonde Swede. Got pregnant, moved back home to Sweden. Comes over to visit DC sometimes. Cute kid, too. Great boss.

Started at Borders two weeks after I’d started at my day job. Started in Loss Prevention. Did that for a few months. Pretty boring, never caught a shoplifter. Had to wake some homeless people a few times and kick ‘em out. Never liked that. Felt bad.

Started in April. By late May, all of the booksellers — students — had quit to go home for the summer. Boss asked, “Hey, you wanna be a bookseller?” I said “Yes.” Got to stop wearing the stupid red shirt. Learned how to work the computer systems. Became very familiar with the store sections and layouts. Started making closing announcements.

I fell in love with DC early. I grew up outside DC, in Adelphi. White Oak for elementary school, then we moved ot Columbia for middle and high school. Went to Towson for college, spent nearly ten years north of Baltimore. Five year stretch of time where I went no closer to DC than Columbia. True story. There was for a long time a belief that while I would eventually leave my Bethesda job for something in downtown DC, I would always have Borders in the background: me, in my fifties, working part-time one night a week, the mythical “old man who all the younger employees would look up to, me having worked there for so damn long.

Really felt like that would be a possibility.

My responsibilities at Borders gradually increased. I started spending all Sundays in the Cage in the stockroom, keepering upcoming DVD and CD releases. I got to “host” author events. Think I may have been on CSPAN once or twice. Don’t know – cancelled my cable TV service a year ago.

And every Christmas there were the rumors, “This is the year Borders goes out of business.” But at the same time, people I considered to have the inside know would say, “They’d never close this store. NEVER. Makes too much business. High sales.”

But the building was renovated. Sales dropped, bounced back. Management came and went. Everything seemed the same.

After Christmas, deliveries stopped coming. No more big pallets. Books came in like icycles: a drip, a drab. So sad. Thought it was just the company in general. Thought, surely, Borders will survive this. Surely, Borders won’t close THIS store. This store, with the massive lower level where at least once a week, someone coming in for a book in Reference, where they usually just browsed mags, would admit, “I’ve been coming here for years, never been downstairs — wow! There’s a lot down here!” And there was! IS! There still IS a huge downstairs. So much.

My fondest memories of downstairs will be taking the old dusty prop-replica lightsabers – Master Replicas? — and sparring with Bahkti in music. Let me tell you, those things are sturdy. WHAM! CRACK! Whoops, full power on a CD stand, and yet the blade still stood.

One of my favorite songs is Queen’s Radio Ga-Ga. Playing right now. Can we have a Borders Ga-Ga?

You had your time, you had the power
You’ve yet to have your finest hour

Well, no, guess we can’t.

***

I bumped into Greg tonight. Love that guy. He worked there for nearly ten years, left last April. Works at a well respected magazine downtown. On the masthead. Great guy. Anyone who works there I’ve met, I always ask, “Do you know Greg ____?” And if they don’t, they at least say, “I know the name!” And they should. He’s wonderful.

On my way out of the Barking Dog, I went with my coworker Josh W., who also lives in DC. He saw me as far as Cleveland Park. I bumped into Greg on the mezzennine, reloading his SmarTrip.

I’ve made a lot of friends in DC in the last almost three years. I’ve made some via this blog, many via Twitter. Don’t read my Twitter feed 0– it’s been kind of silly, today at least. @MalnurturedSnay if you want too. But I made a lot of friends working at Borders. Not even just the coworkers, some of the customers, too. I don’t know if I’ll still see them once I’m gone from the store. I hope so, even if just to say hello.

It’s been a long, strange journey. There was a time I thought that store would be around forever. Yesterday, browsing the Barnes & Noblre on 12th Street to use my Groupon, I felt myself some tears: THIS? THIS depressing bookstore is what beat Borders? It was once said that Borders carried one copy of ten books, and that B&N carries ten copies of one book. Mismanagement at the top was what brought Borders down, I truly believe it.

Today I typed up a short letter. It contains thirty-four words:

2/16/2011

To Whom It May Concern,

Thursday, March 3rd 2011 will be my last day with Borders. I’ve loved working here, and I just don’t think I can get through liquidation.

Thank you for understanding,

I comfort myself by telling myself that I always land on my feet. Things will end well. Not for Borders, alas.

Please, if you pray, pray for those working at Borders without a safety net, who’ll be losing their jobs soon. If you don’t pray, send kind thoughts your way. And if you enter my store, or any Borders, to take advantage of a liquidation sale, be kind to the staff. This is a heart-breaking experience.

Writing this post … very sobering.

The Fate of the Bookstore

According to this list of Borders store closures posted by The Wall Street Journal, my store is set for closing.

I had to go over to the 14th Street store to assist with their liquidation this past summer, and it wasn’t fun on the rare nights I did it. I have no intention of spending the next couple of months (because that’s how long it takes) going through that same vulture-happy nightmare. I just typed up my two weeks notice: March 3rd is my last day with the company.

I think this is a good thing.

I mean … I’ll have virtually no discretionary spending for a while. But I hope to have a new part-time gig lined up, and even if not, this is still the kick in the pants I need to get my actual job search going. And, hey, who can say no to lots of free time, right?

Right?

Hey – it’s been a great almost three years. No hate. Just love.

***

If you want to find out if your favorite Borders is closing, the list is organized by store number. If you’ve got a store receipt handy, look at the top of the receipt under the address and on the left hand side you should see this line: STORE: XXXX REG: XX/XX TRAN#: XXXX. The STORE: XXXX is the store number. The number is also on the yellow BINC sticker most Borders books have on the back of them: it’s on the bottom right hand side under the barcode.

Briefly on Borders

Hey, this thing still works.

So it’s probably an open secret that when I refer to “The Bookstore” I’m talking about a Borders Bookstore located in Washington, DC. And it’s probably even less of a secret that Borders is in some serious trouble. You might’ve picked up on this if you’ve been Googling “Borders Group” even inconsistently for the last few years, but even if you haven’t, the Wall Street Journal on Friday publishing this article as breaking news probably clued you in:

The troubled Ann Arbor, Mich., bookseller could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy-protection as soon as Monday or Tuesday, paving the way for hundreds of store closings and thousands of job losses, said people familiar with the matter.

Borders has abandoned efforts to refinance its debts, and is preparing bankruptcy papers and seeking financing agreements that would keep it operating during the Chapter 11 restructuring process, the people said. Its shares tumbled 33% to 25 cents apiece in 4 p.m. New York Stock Exchange trading after The Wall Street Journal reported its plans.

“Borders is not prepared at this time to report on the course of action it will pursue,” Borders said in a statement.

Borders’s finances crumbled amid declining interest in bricks-and-mortar booksellers, a broad cultural trend for which it offered no answers. The bookseller suffered a series of management gaffes, piled up unsustainable debts and failed to cultivate a meaningful presence on the Internet or in increasingly popular digital e-readers.

It’s my strong belief that the store I work at will be okay. I mean, as long as restructuring bankruptcy doesn’t become liquidation bankruptcy. In any case, my specific store is one of the highest volume stores in the country, so we should be okay. I mean, obviously, I’m not privy to what’s going on in Ann Arbor. We should be okay. (I hope we’ll be okay, anyway).

Meanwhile, I like the words of Peter Osnos in last month’s The Atlantic:

Ultimately, a successful bookstore, on any scale, depends on a specific understanding of how to make the most of the outpouring of books and the digital transformation that will attract readers. Whatever else Borders does in the months ahead, it needs to recover its belief that real book-selling is an art (with all the peculiarities that entails), as well as a viable business.

So, Borders Executives: can we please please PLEASE just go back to selling books? Thanks.

The Oddness of My Suspension of Disbelief as It Pertains to the Movie Total Recall

Isn’t it weird how things work out, right?

So today I was going through some of my DVDs and I came across a copy of The Recruit. And I said to myself (because I enjoy speaking to myself), “Hey, I should watch this.” It’s one of those DVDs I picked up never having seen the movie, back when it first came out, 2003?, watched it once, and then it languished for the next seven or eight years until today. And so I’m watching it, it’s playing right now, actually, and I think to myself, “Hey, Colin Farrell — I know he did an episode of Scrubs not that long ago, what else has he been doing lately?”

So I jumped on IMDB, and the first thing that caught my eye is that (I mean, according to IMDB at least) he’s playing Doug Quaid in a remake of Total Recall scheduled for release in 2012.

Total Recall’s just over twenty years old, came out back in 1990. If you’re not familiar with Paul Verhoeven, a lot of his movies — his best ones, anyway — are usually sci-fi with a lot of gore (he also did the one starring Jesse from Saved by the Bell who I’m pretty sure bared her breats, I’m not actually sure because I can’t keep that interested in the movie long enough to see if she actually does). For example, this scene from Robocop. Man, haven’t we all worked with people we’d love to have that happen to? Oh, I never have. Anyway.

So Total Recall is about this guy named Doug (the Governator) Quaid who operates heavy machinery in the late 21st Century. He goes to a place called Total Recall for a memory implant – basically, if you can’t afford to travel, you can pay a fee and have two weeks’ worth of memories dumped into your brain for whatever kind of trip you want. But something goes wrong during the memory implant, and Quaid suddenly finds that his quarry buddies, and his wife (Sharon Stone) want to kill him. He makes his way to Mars in an attempt to infiltrate the resistance (Mars is a dictatorship) and overthrow the evil Ronny Cox and his henchman Michael Ironside, who are sitting on a pretty big secret.

Look, in movies, I understand you’ve gotta suspend your disbelief a lot. And, honestly, with this movie, I can.

I can suspend my disbelief and not bat an eye that Sharon Stone might be able to beat the crap out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I can believe that.

I can believe a woman can have three boobs. Actually, what bothers me most about this woman is do I find her attractive? Or not attractive? Because if two boobs are perfection, shouldn’t three be, I don’t know, heavenly? But then my mind says, but three boobs! What the fuck do you do with the third one?

I can believe that there is vast, ancient alien machinery buried under the surface of Mars that, when activated, will start a chemical reaction that will bring an atmosphere, and oxygen, to Mars.

I can even believe that when Arnold gets sucked out onto Mars’ surface and his hands and face and eyeballs start to bulge and threaten to explode, that once the alien machinery works and pumps out the oxygen, that he’ll immediately be ay-okay.

But what I can’t get my mind around — like seriously — is the bullets used in this movie.

So in this scene — where Quaid is escaping from his apartment and getting involved in a shootout on the subway, a human body is clearly sufficient to use as a shield against the small arms fire used by Michael Ironside’s Mars Gestapo.

But then! The same guns are capable of blowing out the windows on the Mars Colony, much to the displeasure of several of Marc Alaimo’s (i.e., Gul Dukat for those Trekkies reading this!) goons, who get sucked out the window. You get the feeling that if you just lean against the window too hard, it’d just shatter. I don’t know who Mars’ architect was, but I think the whole movie’d be improved if Michael Ironside walked into a door labeled “MARS ARCHITECT” and said to some bloke behind the desk, “Hey, are you the dumbass who put cheap glass everywhere?” and then shot the shit out of him.

Because. SERIOUSLY. If you’re going to build a structure on Mars, you’re probably going to make sure that it’s going to be able to stand up to being shot up by your trigger happy goons. Right?