The fall after I thought I had graduated from college- after I had walked in the ceremony but before I found out that I still needed three more credits- I got a job at Borders, just for a few months around the holidays, just too earn a little money and get off my mother’s couch while I was figuring out what I was really going to do with my life. I was a bookseller for a year, then a supervisor, then an assistant manager. My “three months until I find something better” turned into three years. I worked for Borders in two different states and if it hadn’t been for a manager who dicked me over when I moved back to NY I would probably still be there now, at the end of days.
I honestly can’t remember when the first Borders opened near me, or, really, a time before Borders. I went straight from Scholastic book orders to spending hours among the rows and rows of books, getting lost in the possibilities, desperately trying to figure out how to convince my mom to let me take it all home. Or maybe one more, just one more book, I need this book!
As an English major, Borders seemed like the logical place to work. I mean, if I was going to go back to retail it might as well be selling things I know a little bit about. And I really did love the store. So, I accepted a job that I was overqualified for, for less money than I could have gotten, because I got to be around books all day, and really, this was only going to last for a few months…
If I had had any kind of dignity or self respect or esteem at all I probably could have found a “grown up” job that paid a livable wage and said goodbye to Borders and retail in the three months I had allotted myself. If I had done that maybe I would be more financially secure right now, more stable, climbing the ladder not worrying who’s looking up my skirt. But then I just wouldn’t be me.
More than high school, more than college even, working at Borders made me who I am today. For whatever that may be worth to society. My coworkers were musicians and actors, aspiring directors, writers, artists, bibliophiles, and students. It was a while before I was able to shrug off enough of my insecurities to start making friends.
They all seemed so much cooler and smarter than me. They weren’t exactly the popular kids from high school, they were the smart alecks who sat in the back of the class and fell asleep because they were out last night at some bar you could never get into, listening to a band you’d never heard of. Because of these misfit toys I finally committed to being a vegetarian while on my lunch break (at a McDonald’s), I discovered all those bands I had never heard of before, and my life changed forever when a co-worker told me that I HAD to watch Battlestar Galactica. I had gone into Borders with a rough sketch of who I was and they helped me shade in the colors.
Now, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. In fact, it mostly wasn’t roses and sunshine. It was retail and retail means customers who will demoralize you and then make you clean up after them, it means managers who sit in their office all day doing god knows what, while you try to manipulate yourself out of her line of sight whenever she does grace the sales floor with her presence because the only leadership tool she has is fear, and it means shitty, shitty pay.
It’s been a couple of years since I left Borders though, and now I look back on my time with the company much the same way so many people remember high school. All those things that had me cursing and complaining, threatening to walk out in the middle of a shift, and getting drunk with co-workers on a Tuesday night have faded into this warm hazy glow and I’m left with only the rose colored memories. Even the terrifying night I spent alone in the parking lot with Harry Potter fans who were not yet allowed in to buy Deathly Hollows feels like part of the good ole days.
I miss talking teenagers out of buying new Gossip Girl and instead sending them off with Looking for Alaska.
I miss the advance copies of books that publishers sent to the store and I, almost exclusively, absconded with.
I miss the discount, even though Amazon is still probably cheaper (My first few months at Borders I worked myself into a decent debt before I was able to reign myself in- millions of books and I get a discount, how could this possible go wrong?).
I miss walking the aisles finding new things to love.
I miss shoving The History of Love into customers’ hands and telling them that they would love it.
I miss discussions about the validity of having an African American lit section when really shouldn’t it just be with the rest of literature?
I miss all the crazy stupid things we did to keep each other sane, like cart races or reading erotica over the walkees.
Every so often in this awkward quest I'm on to be "a grown up" I fantasize about ditching the cubicle and running back to Borders, back to the books and the misfit toys. Guess I need a new escape route.
Even if I do figure it out, if I find my way into the life I really want, one of peace and security and success on my terms, there’s probably always going to be part of me that misses working at Borders.