Over the next few days, all Borders bookstores around the country will begin a multi-week Going-Out-of-Business sale. The liquidation of the company means the closing of the remaining 400 stores, and it leaves 11,000 booksellers jobless. It also means that booklovers will have one less place in their communities to discover great new writers, and one less place close to home where they can spend a comfortable, enlightening, and cheap Saturday afternoon with their kids.
It was purely coincidental that the final Harry Potter film, “Deathly Hallows Part 2,” was released last weekend, the same weekend that Borders came to the undeniable conclusion that their jig was finally up, but the parallels don’t stop there. Just like Harry…
- Borders was on a collision path with destiny. While things could certainly have turned out differently for both Harry and for Borders, neither could deny that for the last several years a war has loomed on the horizon that eventually had to be waged.
- Borders faced a seemingly insurmountable army of destroyers. For Borders, just like for Harry, many enemies were clear and present external forces (e-commerce, e-books, and of course the e-conomy), but some of the damage came from within as well. Harry carried a little Voldemort within himself, and Borders, likewise, was sometimes its own worst enemy.
- Borders could not succeed without the help of unparalleled acts of magic. Alas, Harry found a wand; Borders did not.
I worked for Borders for a little over 16 years, and in that time, the company evolved dramatically. Company vision and strategies were altered radically to reflect new competition and new technology (though clearly not always as quickly or effectively as needed), and as new CEOs and executives came and went, the company’s leadership philosophy also changed (sometimes for better, and sometimes not). As you can imagine, all this change is difficult to manage, and occasionally difficult to swallow. Throughout the transformation though, two critical constants remained that kept folks like me working at Borders for years – the books and the people.
Those of us who are drawn to working in bookstores choose to think that we are not exactly like other retail employees. As with other retailers, booksellers are typically drawn to their places of employment by a shared appreciation for what they sell. But for booksellers, it’s more than just a love of books. Booksellers understand that what they sell are not just books, but the ideas, entertainment, and inspiration that people need to live their lives well. Every good bookseller I know can tell you a story (or two) about a time they helped someone in their store who was in desperate need. And each of those booksellers will also tell you that those moments when they made a difference in the lives of others provided just the motivation they needed to stay in bookselling.
Want to see the nerdiest and most amazing thing in the world? Stop in a bookstore and watch a bookseller. Watch a bookseller effervesce as she tells a young girl about the first time she read Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins. Watch a bookseller lend a sympathetic ear to a distraught woman who is struggling to help her toddler understand why grandma isn’t coming back from the hospital, and then suggest the Fall of Freddie the Leaf. Watch a bookseller befriend an awkward teenager and then casually mention that Richard Bach’s Illusions really changed the way he saw the world when he was younger.
Certainly, booksellers are not a single monolithic force for good. As with any profession, some people care more than others, and that shows in the work they do. Nonetheless, on the whole, the folks who work at your nearby Borders store care deeply – they care about books, they care about each other, and they care about their customers and communities. So, when you see those god-awful yellow and black banners plastered all over a nearby Borders store shouting “Everything Must Go,” stop in and say something kind to a bookseller. Remember, your good-time clearance shopping is actually the end of someone else’s career. Don’t haggle (they can’t adjust prices anyway) - just take your 20% or 30% discount and be happy. Tell them how much you appreciate what they’ve done, and wish them well as they end this chapter of their lives and head out to find new jobs.
All good things must come to an end, right? For Borders and for thousands of talented booksellers, just as for Harry Potter, that end has finally come.