Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The End

Well, it's unfortunate to report that I will soon be joining the ranks of the unemployed. The book chain that I have worked at for almost 7 years is now shutting its doors for good nationwide. Borders will be no more by the end of September.

People have asked me, "What went wrong? Are all Borders stores closing?" several times over the past week. It goes back a long way, back before I even started with the company. It supposedly started in the mid-90s, some say around 2000, and some say around 2005, and one of the first nails in the coffin happened around 2008. I don't want to bash my employer, but I can definitely concur that the company not getting behind the internet revolution was definitely one of the main faults. Borders wasn't selling books online as Amazon began to dominate the market, and they had actually partnered with Amazon.com for a short time sending Borders customers to Amazon's website.

People have asked, "Is it because of the Kindle?" Nice idea given most Borders employees hate Amazon.com, but the Kindle definitely didn't help as the company got behind the less impressive Kobo line of e-Readers and those horrible Cruz readers and Cruz tablets. People have asked a lot of questions that each represent a brick in the end of Borders--all of these things from people going online, the kindles, Wal-Mart and Costco are all to be considered. One thing I can say that probably took us down was the massive amount of debt that the company carried through the middle of the last decade until now.

I will say that I loved Borders as a brand before I even worked in a Borders. Borders is where I found all of my Buddhist reading material; I found such a variety of books that I didn't have to go into special bookstores to buy; I took comfort in the fact that I could buy my books, DVDs, and CDs all in one spot given they would likely have anything I would be looking for. Borders to me represented a place where you could go and find laid back and incredibly knowledgable people who could recommend anything to you; you wouldn't regret buying anything a Borders employee suggested. In late 2008, it seemed that being part of that Borders image was about to change for the worst. That's when a CEO came to town named Ron Marshall who forced us to sell specific "MAKE titles" to customers; it didn't matter if you came in for a specific book, we had to recommend these titles to you and push you to buy them. The image and the atmosphere of Borders wasn't what it used to be, and we played the role of a retailer that was desperate for sales as we prayed that we would never see the company in bankruptcy. We worked in the store short staffed and stressed out during peak times of the year--including the infamous Christmas season of 2009 where most employees were complaining about 3-5 people being staffed in the store during the Christmas peak shopping days and hours.

What are my reflections on it now that we know what our fate includes? I would say that while it's sad, we definitely knew what was coming (in fact, a Borders employee made a Borders Liquidation BINGO sheet that has a "we knew it was coming" tile). I can also say that people shouldn't think Borders is the end--Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million are going to be in the same position in 3-5 years with Barnes & Noble losing a couple of billion dollars in assets and Books-A-Million reporting 100 million dollars in losses. Amazon.com as one customer told me is the "Wal-Mart of the internet, and has killed the book business." I can say I agree, but I also heard many customers tell us how sad they are we are going under--but yet many of these people will also tell you they can't resist shopping on Amazon.com.

How am I handling the liquidation process?

Well, TIME magazine wrote this amusing article HERE about how much our liquidation sale sucks because anything that was discounted last week via a coupon or discounted price of 20-30% is now only 10% in the liquidation's starting process (funny how TIME Magazine doesn't understand how liquidation sales work), and we're hearing a lot of people say they want deeper discounts and will come back. We are simply in the store as staff of the liquidation company that now owns us and are selling off the assets. There is nothing we have to sell, we don't have access to our own computer systems to help customers find titles, the pictures from employees showing up on the net show stores in disarray with piles of books everywhere in their store, and we're simply there to take the customer's money. Am I taking it personally? Not one bit. Am I bitter towards the liquidators? Not at all. I'm just taking the process like those who knew what their fate was on the Titanic as it sunk.

To the customers asking me and my fellow Borders employees "What will you do now?" Please stop asking us. Many of us simply don't know what's ahead of us in our lives. I don't know what the conditions will be of the job market next week, next month, or around September when this process will supposedly be over and we're left to filing for unemployment. Many of us are responding with witty comebacks or mild smartass comments in reply that you are taking literally; I can assure you none of us are really going to go be on Safaris in Kenya, and none of us are going to be sitting at home counting how many millions we have left from our lottery earnings. Just stop while you're ahead, enjoy your bargains, and mourn the loss of your local Borders without asking us if they're finding us jobs or asking us personal questions about our finances--unless you're prepared to offer us jobs.

So, with that, I'm sorry to say that I will probably not be seeking employment in this business after it's all done. I'm probably done being Brian the Bookseller. But I want to thank all the customers I had who appreciated all my recommendations, all of the authors who gave me the time of day when I e-mailed them or added me to their personal Facebook pages to talk about their books, and most of my co-wrokers who I have gotten to know over the years as well as Borders for giving me a job in 2005 when I relocated here to California.

I wish this blog could have lasted longer and regret that I'm pulling the plug on it as quickly as it began. But if you were a reader, thanks for following.

-Brian the Bookseller

Here are some liquidation related photos for your enjoyment. I took a few of these in my store during Day 3. I also included the Borders Liquidation Bingo, a letter to customers left by the staff in a closing store, and where you can find the nearest Borders restroom.

Friday, July 15, 2011

5 Questions for "Malled" Author Caitlin Kelly

If you're familiar with the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, you're probably aware of her book, "Nickel & Dimed." Ehrenreich did an experiment to see if she could survive working minimum wage jobs in various cities. Caitlin Kelly’s "Malled" is NOT one of those books.

Caitlin Kelly was a successful journalist and author. She did many exquisite pieces as a freelance writer, and for the Daily News. She had sipped tea with the queen, wrote a story on the DNA testing of 9/11 victims, and she has experience as an editor. As the journalism profession began to constrict, she found herself laid off after one of her most productive years ever; she eventually did something she never thought she would do, get a retail job.

Kelly took a job with The North Face at an upscale shopping center outside of New York City. Her book describes her transition into the retail world and having to use a different set of people skills, her frustration in dealing with the store and corporate management, and her research on the world of retail. “Malled” raises the question about the quality of our shopping experiences, exposes the low wages and the abuse of retail employees, and also talks about the extra mile that retail veterans go to serve their customers.

You weren’t sent to do this for an undercover writing assignment, and this was nothing that you had actually planned on doing; you really went to work in retail to pay the bills. You mentioned that during the year you were laid-off that you actually had one of your most productive periods. You have an impressive resume as someone who interviewed the Queen of England and did some very exquisite pieces in your journalism career. How much of a shock was it to go from a person in that position to going to work at The North Face? 

It was a shock, as much to go from an industry I know, and have worked in since college, as to drop from a good salary to a minimum-wage job. I was naive enough to think that any work done well and cheerfully would be respected, but quickly discovered how dismissive some customers can be when they assume you have no better work options than a low-wage position. I didn't mind the work at The North Face, but I really disliked the way many of were treated for simply doing that work. I liked that the North Face job required emotional skills from me that journalism did not.

What led to you writing a book about your experiences while working at The North Face? 

I wrote an essay for The New York Times, a column about work called Preoccupations, in which I compared retail to journalism -- and preferred retail, for a few reasons. The essay drew 150 emails from all over the world, so it clearly hit a nerve! I spoke in Manhattan on a panel about a month after that, and there was an agent's assistant in the audience who suggested I write a memoir. My new agent agreed and we sold it to Portfolio in September 2009.

As someone who has worked in retail, one of the interesting research points that I thought you made was based on the idea that you get what you pay for when it comes to people who work for you. You mention the high turnover, employees being paid less, and the quality of customer service going down. Do you think this is becoming more common? 

I really find it counter-intuitive -- pun intended! -- to underpay your front-line, customer-facing staff who very much help drive corporate profits yet pay them pennies, rarely give raises and offer little chance for promotion. Very few people will tolerate such conditions, and then companies just hire a whole new crew and burn them out. It's no way to run a business, yet it's very typical of large-scale retail. In a terrible economy, companies can be even more abusive, so I see little chance of improvement until things pick up again. If then!

You mentioned that you had applied to be in management and you were turned down. Were you ever given any idea as to why you were turned down? 

I was given no reasons why I was not even interviewed for a managerial position. I had asked repeatedly. I suspect because I would have been managing former co-workers and that might have been uncomfortable. If I had specific weaknesses preventing me from being considered for it, these were never addressed or discussed with me.

What has been The North Face’s response to your book? 

The North Face refused comment when the Associated Press called them about Malled. An employee at a store in another state told me the company required every staffer to sign a document promising not to discuss the book with customers.

Many thanks to Caitlin Kelly for allowing me to interview her. You can find out more about "Malled" and Caitlin Kelly by visiting CaitlinKelly.com

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why You Should Read David Foster Wallace

There is a fact that when an entertainer or artist passes away that their work goes into demand. We’ve seen this with many people from Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Jerry Garcia, etc. The same can be said for authors; I remember the rush on Salinger when they announced he had passed—Vonnegut was another author that I can remember a rush on after the announcement of his passing. There has been one author that I have found interesting in his death years: David Foster Wallace. While there has been a genuine interest in his work, it hasn’t been at the levels of the well-known writer when one of them pasess away. It seems that people are slowly stumbling upon his work. 

If you aren’t familiar with David Foster Wallace or any of his writings, here’s what you need to know.

David Foster Wallace was a very clever, articulate, and fascinating individual in the sense of his writing and imagination; he contributed to publications such as Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, Playboy, GQ, and Esquire. He wrote very provocative pieces on a whole range of subjects; he wrote pieces on things such as a porno convention, his time following John McCain in the 2000 campaign and primaries for the Republican nomination, many articles, essays, and themes in his novels about tennis (a sport he loved and followed religiously), and many other articles that showed his versatility and interest in a whole range of subjects.

My experience with reading David Foster Wallace’s works of fiction is that you read the back of the book for a description; when you start reading the story, it's nothing that you expected or understood from that back cover; you can’t believe what is being thrown at you and where the story goes. His non-fiction work is exactly the same; it's funny, serious, frightening, and it's all true. The one thing that I have found to be an annoying feature to his work is his obsessive-compulsive use of the MLA writing format. There are some pages in his books that are entirely in-text MLA format citations, and long extensive notes within the citations that can be entertaining to read, or you eventually just start to find them a pain in the ass and start skipping over them entirely.

The Broom of the System was his fiction debut. It received a lot of critical acclaim, and he was branded as one of the best new writers upon its release in 1987. My response to that book was that it felt like John Hughes movie, a William S. Burroughs novel, a David Lynch film, and some real slapstick humor all rolled up into one. David Foster Wallace’s ability to channel some of Thomas Pynchon’s writing ideas and yet keep the reader fascinated is something that most authors are probably jealous of when it comes to Wallace’s brilliance. He went on to write another critically acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest, that goes the same route of The Broom of the System in writing style.

If you desire to read some smart reading that goes beyond the works of David Sedaris or Chuck Klosterman, his essays and articles also show his brilliance. The one essay of his that gave us a look into his compassionate personality was in a collection called Consider the Lobster; his essay about the events of 9/11 and how he spent his time dealing with it during and after as he watched our country become transformed is a look into how the artistic and sensitive soul viewed the events of that horrific day.

His versatility and time as a reporter made another work of fiction of his become one of his most well known works, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. The book features interviews with fictional characters; interviews with demented individuals that have fascinations with the darkest of things. It’s a look into the philosophy of wickedness, and even douchebaggery goes under the microscope. 

The death of David Foster Wallace was indeed a tragic end. It’s sad to think that a writer with the tremendous gift of writing and the ability to teach writing to others would take his own life. David Foster Wallace’s suicide was a result of his lifelong clinical depression that he took anti-depressant medication for that gave him the foundation for his productive life. While suffering severe side-effects of his medication, he weaned off of it and then found himself severely depressed; he went back on his medication and also tried other methods of treatment that were unsuccessful, which led to his suicide on September 12, 2008.

In April of 2011, Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, was released. The novel deals with the life of an employee of the Internal Revenue Service taking the same strange turns as the events surround the characters in his previous novels. There are also themes of depression and despair; obviously subjects that David Foster Wallace was dealing with at time he was writing it. I've read some criticisms about how it was published as an unfinished novel, while others have praised it. I have yet to read it, and I hope to find the time to read it sometime soon. 

While David Foster Wallace is an acquired taste, I think everyone could find some enjoyable reading from his works. If you can’t get into his fiction, I suggest checking out his essay collections. If you enjoy the works of Pynchon, Kafka, or Burroughs, you’ll definitely love David Foster Wallace. David Foster Wallace cracked our minds open to the idea of having a sense of irony when viewing the world around us; he made us think differently about how we interpret art; and he’s also one of the last great writers that is truly irreplaceable.

“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, "then" what do we do?” – David Foster Wallace