The summer before my senior year of college, I left my internship at a D.C. newspaper and looked for part-time work in my hometown. The natural choice was Borders, a place where I could get paid (paid!) to talk about books all day. The salary was decent; the staff seemed friendly. The lovely aroma of fresh coffee immediately permeated my pores and gave me the extra jolt I was seeking. Both a refuge and solid employment, my gig at Borders seemed like the perfect opportunity.
And it was. The only reason Borders wasn’t my first job ever was due to the 18-and-over employment policy. When I applied for jobs fresh out of high school, I was a 17-year-old kid who wanted spending cash. Getting to work at Borders came three years later and, excited beyond words, I started my part-time shifts with the idea that I would work there until I graduated from college and had to seek out full-time, career-related employment.
Well, I got a full-time job. In 2007, I was hired as an assistant editor at the newspaper where I still work and write. But when the time came to break ties with Borders, offering myself fully to the paper that was my “big girl job,” I just couldn’t do it. The idea of leaving the bookstore was unfathomable.
Most of the time, I loved the people. Even when they were rude and terrible and ignorant. Even when they sought a book with no description other than “it’s blue” or “it’s written by a famous person.” The jolt I received when I actually could find that book — that crazy, elusive, damn-near-impossible book — was a high unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I loved giving recommendations and receiving them from others, watching with understanding as customers’ eyes lit up when describing a favorite read. It felt like magic.
If I thought I knew lots about reading before, working at Borders opened up a whole new world for me. Authors previously undiscovered now littered my shelves, their tomes procured with the awesome employee discount. On the nights I would go straight from my 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. full-time gig at the paper to the store, staying until 11 p.m. or later, I discovered the lovely aroma of coffee and chai tea. I made great friends at Borders, all of us united through our “in the trenches” mentality.
More than anything, I just looked forward to being there. The smell of fresh books, stripped open from heavy palates, was intoxicating. I loved store events like our midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when I hosted a party for more than 1,000 people and worked until 4 a.m. I loved chatting with other readers and feeding off our mutual love of literature. I met a boyfriend there. Ran into countless friends there.
In our town, which has no other bookstore, Borders is the epicenter of life.
I didn’t want to leave. When I visit the store now and see many familiar faces — you know, minus the whole “you don’t have a bun in the oven, do you?” debacle — I feel a jolt of sadness and whimsy for life back at the bookstore. After receiving a great promotion at the paper, I finally quit my part-time job there in October 2008. I visit often and still feel like, if called upon, I could hop behind the information desk or man a register without trouble. It’s just the sort of job that sticks with you.
On Feb. 16, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced they would be closing 200 stores (click for full list of store closings). When my dad emailed me that spreadsheet, my stomach dipped down to my shoes. The idea of Borders — our Borders, the site of countless dates and late nights and chats and coffee runs — closing was hideous. It actually made me feel sick.
I’m happy to say, friends, that our Borders in Southern Maryland is safe.
But so many others aren’t.
I understand why this happened. Countless articles have come out about why the chain, once so prominent, is teetering on the edge of extinction. The recession; the rise of e-books; the abundance of cheap books online; Borders failing to keep up with market trends. All of these things make sense. They suck, yes, but they make sense.
But what I can’t understand is a town without a bookstore. If our Borders in Waldorf, Md., had closed, we would be without any book retailer in three counties. There are no independent bookshops peddling anything more than old, dusty paperbacks, and there’s only so much you can find at Target or Wal-Mart. Friends, without a Borders, we would have been book destitute.
And I would have been devastated.
Though we’re out of the red zone, I feel terrible for the cities that are losing their Borders locations — and the employees who are suddenly out of work. I feel bad, too, for the publishers and distributors and authors who are still trying to make a living in a tough business during a tough recession — and how Borders’ closings are affecting them.
I feel sad for the couples who can’t meet at Borders for coffee on a first date or the families who covet their time at the store paging through the children’s section. And who hasn’t spent a lazy Sunday wandering around the store’s bookcases, admiring recent releases and feeling the weight of a hardcover in their hands?
Is everything with the chain sunshine and roses? No, of course not. Sometimes customer service sucks, and I get that. But it doesn’t make me love Borders any less.
I’m hugging my own store a little closer these days. And if yours dodged the bankruptcy bullet, I hope you will, too.