Retail Memories- Borders Bookstore, An Overview

You must be thinking, “Nick, that’s a BevMo.” You’re right, it is, but it was once a great bookstore. Now it’s just another place for people in RSM to get drunk, as if they need another establishment to accomplish this goal.

For five years I worked in a Borders bookstore and they were probably some of the best times in my life. I met my wife at Borders, I have friends from that place still, and many memories to recall; some bad, some good, some really really strange.

People are freaks, let us never forget this fact.

I worked in Borders 521 in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. Our store was probably one of the smallest in the company and it was the best. I am not trying to pump up our place, our bookstore rocked almost all the time in sales and meeting goals, maybe not all the time, but like any underdog team we had a lot of heart!

I started in the cafe as a Barista as it was the only position in this store you could get at the time. This Borders had so many applicants they had a round file for almost everyone else who wanted to be a bookseller. I applied twice, and on the second time I got in for my coffee making abilities I received while under the oppressive regime that is Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (An earlier job for another blog.)

The cafe in the RSM Borders was the smallest in the company and it was also the slowest. We were surrounded by two Starbucks, a bakery, and other eateries; I’d say we stood the same chances of making bank on a daily basis as the lawyer from Jurassic Park in succeeding in his hiding spot from the T-Rex.  I’m not exaggerating when I say I served probably 15 customers over an eight hour shift. Most of my days were done leaning in the window sill, and making sure none of the fool hardy teenagers ran off with a Playboy from the cafe exit, as all cleaning and maintenance was finished due to boredom.

Speaking of Playboys, I can’t count the number of times the handicap stall held a stack of Playboys, Penthouses, and other various risque material. It was like playing Russian Roulette every closing shift because if you found those magazines you had to pick them up off the bathroom floor, after they had been used for their… intended purposes, and shelve them back in their proper spots. Oh yes, that spank magazine you got for the articles was probably at one point sitting in the splash zone of a bathroom floor.

I digress.

The cafe was eventually closed due to poor sales, and unlike the common practices of corporate American,  I wasn’t laid off but rather moved over to Bookseller/Multi-Media salesman. I was so excited for this gig because I could actually move around and do something! This was my post for the remainder of my time at Borders and it was probably some of the most fun and stressful times in my life. Fun because of the customers you interacted with and your fellow employees, but stressful due to the slow death we all saw coming.

Being an employee at this company it was really sad to watch the culture of this place slide into the toilet. The higher ups in corporate made dumb moves that eventually killed us as a company long before the doors ever closed. I remember having to do a promo for Borders Top 200 Music Artists, which came with a list and some thick paper stock insert cards to put behind the CD’s, but after doing the first 20 I found the cards weren’t labeled and the list wasn’t alphabetical.

So 22 year old me just shrugged and put the cards in at random.

You might think me a jerk for doing this, but think about it this way: Someone in a meeting thought this idea up, which went to a person in a cubical who grabbed the assorted artists and put them into a list, which then went to a designer who made the insert cards, which were then printed, bundled, and shipped to all of the stores, which were then looked over by management, and were lastly assigned to employees.

This is a huge waste of materials, time, and money because someone along the way didn’t think to take the extra step and label the cards. I had a full store of customers needing help, and if I am going to choose between the cards that no one cares about and the customer who really need help, I am going to ditch the cards and help someone.

In that meeting someone should have suggested that Borders stop selling CD’s and DVD’s because our price point was MSRP. MSRP is freaking expensive when you compare it to the internet shops that were just eviscerating the brick and motor stores at the time. Selling these extra pieces of inventory did nothing for us except open us up to further risk. No one did this, no one in that meeting had the balls to say no to this extra inventory, and couple the fact that Borders was super late to the e-reader party and it’s really easy to see how it crumbled.

How could have Borders saved itself?

I’m not a super genius in regards to the ebb and flow of running a business, but from a person who worked inside the walls of this store, and other businesses since, I have a few ideas.

1. Cut all multimedia inventory.

Borders is primarily a bookstore not a Tower Records (If you remember them, congrats, I miss them too). I understand the need of having a diverse inventory, but that diversity should feed back into what you are as a store. Borders Bookstore has books in the title! If you want to survive get rid of any inventory that doesn’t relate to your primary market because there are other sellers out there who are specialized in that area and they will kick your ass.

2. Carry inventory that loops around

If you want to diversify your inventory then branch into stationary, limited edition books, board games, puzzles,  independent authors, candles, artwork, and stuff that just oozes books… mmmmm. You see people came to our store because they love the feeling of a bookstore, even if they don’t read. You should have things they will come to find in a bookstore because even if they will not buy a book they will probably get that candle because who doesn’t love a nice smelling candle?

I do…  Mmmmm, Ocean Breeze.

3. Keep it different

People really liked Borders because it was different than the other major sellers. The tone of the stores was fun, bright, and usually had staff that reflected this tone. I say usually, this doesn’t mean always. Over time this feeling left the store and it felt more… corporate. We couldn’t wear hats anymore on shift, flare on badges was cut almost completely, and some stores began to wear polo shirts. POLO SHIRTS! The laziest and most vanilla of business wear! When this started to happen you could tell that death was near. You should keep a tidy shop but the trick is to keep it fun in the process because if you can achieve this then people will want to come and bask in this magical place.

That’s what a bookstore is, it’s magic, and if you can capture that magic then your store will thrive because people will want to support it and keep it open.

Wow, really didn’t mean to go on this long of a rant, but you know what, I don’t care. I loved this store and in the course of my personal history I will never have this exact place ever again. It was fun and I hope you guys can catch some of the fun from those days in the stories I tell because as long as the stories live on that place in history will never truly die.

521 is the Borders in my heart!

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Nick enjoys making things and drinking coffee, specifically the latter, for without it the former wouldn’t get done. He also wrote a book titled “Where Monsters Lie & Other Tales”

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