A changed, once-sacred space


{Working at Borders, 2006}


My local bookstore just reopened. After losing our Borders last summer, we were without a local hang-out until Books-A-Million took over the former space. We rejoiced! I vowed to actually put my money where my typing is and shop there. (Despite the fact that I buy basically everything online, I’ve tried hard to purchase books only in “real” stores. Corporate or no.)

And then something weird happened.

Despite working for a newspaper, I can be surprisingly slow to learn local news — but the store closed again. Temporarily, I heard. It was something with the roof? A leak? I don’t know. Anyway, it closed for weeks. Seeing the chaos through the plate-glass windows and the dark exterior sign was pretty depressing, honestly. It was PTSD — Borders-style.

But the light shone again. We popped in Tuesday for the first time since BAM! re-opened. I bought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because you crazies have been talking about it everywhere, and I can’t stand being out of the In Club. Also, I read 14 pages in what felt like one breath, so.

While waiting for my mother and boyfriend to finish making their rounds of all the usual genres, I found myself . . . lingering. By the displays. Having worked at Borders for years in college, I’m drawn to the familiar fixtures. When BAM! purchased Borders’ old space, the shelves and signage seemed to come with it. Though Spence bought many of Borders’ bookcases for his place, I guess they replaced them? Because the store looks exactly the same.

Entering is always a time-warp. One minute I’m Megan, intrepid 27-year-old columnist, and the next I’m Megan, 21-year-old English major shamelessly draining her bank account on paperbacks with her employee discount. I used to love coming to work — seriously. As much as anyone can love working retail and dealing with the general public, I adored that place. I made so many friends there — people I still think about, people I still miss. The regular customers morphed from strangers to acquaintances, and then to chatty pals. I knew their spouses, their children. Their favorite authors. The way they liked their coffee. By the time I left in 2008, I knew most of their names — and they knew mine.

There was a warmth, a camaraderie. A sense that you were somewhere people met and mingled. Where ideas happened.

It was a really happy place. And time.

Part of my attachment to that job is undoubtedly due to it coinciding with a particular era of my life. I will never again be a freshly-christened college graduate. I will never be 21, or 22, or 23. It will never again be 2006, John Mayer’s just-released “Continuum” on repeat through our faulty speaker system. I will never again feel that untarnished, undecided — and free.

Most days, that’s okay. Good, even. But other times, it stings. Like peroxide. Like salt. Sometimes I want to cry, thinking about that former life — a time when that bookstore was just about my world.

On Tuesday night, the store was deserted. Booksellers milled about with piles of bargain books in their arms, rearranging displays and looking vacantly at their watches. The café was empty save one family in a corner, most of them thumbing away at iPhones. Spencer and I grabbed seats at a rickety table and read for a bit, but it was strange to be in a silent place that was once so teeming with life — one that now sits quiet, neglected. When I worked at Borders, we couldn’t get people out of the café. During holiday hours? We’d have fools camped out until midnight, nursing a single stale cup of coffee from hours before, walled in by stacks of unclaimed books.

Is this how it feels to desperately love something everyone else has abandoned?

The bookseller in me couldn’t help but neaten the displays, aligning edges and straightening stacks. Grabbing books that were tossed aside, patiently walking them back to their proper sections. Spencer once asked me why I do that — “You’re not getting a paycheck anymore” — but I just smiled, shrugged.

“I like it,” I said, and it was true.

Earning a paycheck hadn’t felt like earning a paycheck. It didn’t feel like work.

And I really miss it. More than I ever thought I could.


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Black Friday madness — and my return to retail

It’s Thanksgiving Eve! A glorious day I sit in anticipation of a four-day weekend, lots of delicious food, time with my friends, family and boyfriend and the opportunity to… shop. This Friday is Black Friday!

Working around Black Friday at the bookstore, 2006!

Working around Black Friday at the bookstore, 2006!

After slaving away in crowded, congested stores since I was a freshman in college, Black Friday is typically a day I look forward to with a mixture of anticipation and fear. It’s a little fun, yes — being insanely busy with bustling people everywhere, the time filling itself without much help from you, selling tons of stuff and hopefully keeping your chain store afloat a little longer. I usually wear red and green, throw on a pretty bell necklace and maybe don a Santa hat (emblazoned with my name in glitter, of course).

Black Friday — so called because it’s the day merchants find themselves “back in the black,” i.e. out of the “red” or debt — has its origins, it seems, in Philadelphia in 1966: the day after Thanksgiving brought so many shoppers to the city and congested traffic so badly, police and locals likened it to the chaos of Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed in 1929. Retailers, cab drivers and others in the service industry thought only of the “headaches” Black Friday brought with it, not the potential sales and money-making opportunities.

According to trust Wikipedia, Black Friday is typically not the busiest shopping day of the year — that honor is typically bestowed upon the Saturday before Christmas. Makes sense. Lots of last-minute shoppers out there! Black Friday was the busiest shopping day of the year last holiday, though.

With the economy being what it is, I’m sure this year will be even crazier than usual. And though I left my part-time job at the bookstore in October, I did agree to come pitch in on Friday — I’m working 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., the entire shank of the day. My dad, sister and I are planning on hitting Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy early before I have to meander over to grab a paycheck myself. I haven’t worked at the store in nearly a month, and I’m pretty nervous! It’s one thing to make your triumphant return, and it’s another entirely to make that return on Black Friday. We shall see.

But before I have to worry about working, I’ll be shopping!

end of a retail era

Last night was pretty monumental for me — after five years (and two at my bookstore), my career in retail is over. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I would see this day . . . even after I graduated from college and took my editor position at the newspaper, I couldn’t give up my part-time stint at the store.

The time has come, though. My life is different, the store has evolved, so many co-workers have come and gone . . . after years of waving goodbye and throwing them parties and presenting cakes, it was my turn.

It was definitely an unassuming affair, though. Through all the turmoil, crazy customers, long hours and insanely busy events, my exit was devoid of fanfare. Times like that make you wonder why you really remained so loyal for so long . . . but I don’t want to reflect with bitterness on anything! I loved working at the bookstore, loved my friends and co-workers, and will sincerely miss helping (most) people who came in looking for a book to get them through a bad break-up, help with a school paper, shed some insight into a new faith or governmental practice or just lose themselves in a good story.

Obviously, I love words . . . reading them, writing them, reflecting on them. So I might not be practically living over at the store anymore, but my memories and love of books will stay with me forever.

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Chevy Chase on a lawnmower

Today is my first day at my “new” job — an editor at my paper (versus just assistant to the editor, which was my position as of last Friday)! I can already see how much busier I’m going to be as the sole individual in all of my sections without a real back-up plan . . . but I’m looking forward to the challenge. It’ll be a nice change of pace to stay continuously busy during the day!

In further fairly uneventful news, we had a rash of crazed customers at the store over the weekend who never failed to bring the LOLs. I updated the list I now keep in my back pocket of the most hilarious stories.

My favorite is actually not a “bad” customer story: A father was walking around the bookstore with his young son, who has obviously reached that overwhelmingly curious stage of life where he routinely points to objects, asking his dad what everything is. His patient father responded kindly, “Oh, that’s a book” or “That’s a magazine” or “That’s my shoe.” I was standing near the information counter, sorting through some recovery when they walked by a display.

“Dad, what’s that?” asked the little boy, pointing at the first cover of a stack of movies.

His father raised his eyebrows, puffing out his cheeks. “That’s . . . Chevy Chase on a lawnmower.” (I’m assuming he was looking at a film classic, but I couldn’t figure out which one, really.) He laughed a little, then tugged on his bewildered son’s hand. “Come on, buddy,” he laughed.

I burst out chuckling myself and had a hard time holding it together when I rang up his family about ten minutes later. I wanted so bad to mention Chevy Chase, but I didn’t want him to think I was stalking him or something! It was just so ridiculously random — I loved it.

We got into a lot of political confrontations with customers over the weekend, too — people who were upset because we had too many Obama books, others who were upset because we weren’t displaying McCain books, others who felt our displays “unfairly” supported Obama . . . okay, so these are all Obama-haters, I realize now. All political beliefs aside, I don’t know how anyone could look at any of our displays and see them as anything but balanced and fair! There may be more “Obama” books on a table, but that’s because there are more Obama books in existence! And if the agitated customers had actually bothered to, you know, read the covers, they would have seen that most of the books were actually criticisms of Barack Obama.

But I guess no one actually troubles themselves to read anymore.

Shopping around the Christmas tree

In my office last holiday season.<br />Note the Dwight Schrute magnets!

In my office last holiday season. Note the Dwight Schrute magnets!

Anyone else thinking about starting their Christmas shopping?

I know the economy isn’t exactly in, uh, great shape right now, but the holidays are quickly approaching. October begins the really busy season for most families, and mine is no exception. Birthday season for my uncle, grandmother and cousin Ciara starts this coming Sunday and runs through Oct. 29, and we have my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary to celebrate Oct. 25! Then comes Halloween, of course, followed by Thanksgiving and the inevitable rush and crush of the holiday season overwhelming all in its path.

Like many people rushing headlong into the digital age, I plan on doing a lot of online shopping this year. It’s more convenient for me — a woman chained to her desk — to browse around during the day, creating “shopping carts” and whatnot on my favorite sites. Then I get to go home and buy all the loot at home in the evening! And everything comes right to the door.

Plus, it’s just better, in lots of ways — I can find exactly what I’m looking for. If I’m just shopping for me, I might not be too particular — but buying for family and friends requires a little imagination. If I want to find an Incredible Hulk T-shirt in black for the boyfriend, it just may be easier to track one down online than to wander around the mall with the other deranged holiday shoppers.

Speaking of deranged shoppers, we already have our Christmas cards out and stocked at the bookstore (and they’re on sale, too). Even stranger? I’ve already sold quite a few boxes. Everyone complains that retailers “rush” the holidays — and I don’t necessarily disagree, in many cases — but the truth of the matter is that people want to see holiday merchandise. We’ve already received shipments of our glittery tabletop Christmas trees, though I don’t think they’re on display just yet.

Of course, working in said retail, I wind up buying a lot of gifts where I work. Hey, I’m already there — and I get a pretty sweet discount! The lack of book discount a serious consideration I’ll be making when I decide I’m too tired to keep up my schedule anymore. Sadly, that day is probably approaching soon.

Until then, I’ll start socking things away . . .

Excuse me — where do you keep your invisibility cloaks?

Perhaps Harry can spare his?

Perhaps Harry can spare his?

One of the craziest customers I’ve ever dealt with made her way over to my information counter at the bookstore last night. I have to point out that in addition to being crazy, she really did look crazy — she had the biggest hair you’ve ever seen. When she spent too long wandering around the store and we were trying to close down, my supervisor muttered she was going to “tear her wig off.” (!)

In no particular order, said Crazy Lady was looking for books on the following topics (and yes, I wrote them down at the info counter — there was no way I was going to forget any of this ridiculousness):
• ESP
• golden retrievers
• Princess Diana
• The Marine Corps
• Tammy Faye Bakker
• nuclear energy
• supernatural occurrences
• a world atlas
• coyotes
• metaphysical “gifts” — abilities
• The Kennedys
• a bible cover
• some famous artist I couldn’t pronounce

and . . . my favorite . . .
• INVISIBILITY

Invisibility! She wanted a book on INVISIBILITY! As in, to make one’s self invisible! She presented this question to one of my co-workers, not me . . . Because I probably would have had a hard time not suggesting the Harry Potter series. Harry has a mighty fine and useful invisibility cloak . . . Maybe she could get a few pointers on how to acquire one?

To be fair, she did purchase several of the books we found for her — which is a huge upgrade from the hour or so we can spend with a customer finding items, only to later come across the entire stack of them wedged behind a chair or piled up on a dirty cafe table. Joy of joys!

Let me put you on hold

Last night at the bookstore, I got a pretty interesting call.

Scene: A random September evening at work.

Me: “Thank you for calling [Bookstore], this is Megan, how may I help you?”

Teen Guy: “Hi, do you deliver?”

Me: “I’m… sorry? This is [Bookstore]. Are you looking for an item?”

Teen Guy: “Yes, but I want to know if you’ll deliver it. If you have it.”

Me: “Like, you want me to get in my car and drive it to you?”

Teen Guy: [Long pause, then exasperated.] “Well, however you deliver it. If you drive it, or mail it . . .”

Me: [Equally long, dramatic pause.] “Let me put you on hold.”

Holding is my solution to most strange phone requests. I click the little red button, put the receiver on my shoulder and usually stand, dumb-founded, for a minute or two. Sometimes I call for the opinion of a coworker or manager. I didn’t know where to go with this one.

Guess we should just start calling the store Pizza Hut! But wait, they don’t deliver, either, right?

And in other bookselling news, people are still coming in for summer reading materials. Seriously? Summer reading? Locally, we’re already into our second week of public schooling. College classes at most of the major universities in Maryland began on Tuesday. Are you really coming in to find books for your slacker teenager the second week of school — and then getting mad when we’re actually sold out of them? What did you expect?

And the holiday selling season is just around the corner . . .