“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

21 February 2011

Books aren't dead.

I've been reading so many essays on the downfalls of Borders (downfalls, plural, as there were many). It makes me sad and angry, and I suppose a little petty. I've ridden two sinking ships into the surf so far--Ethel's Chocolate Lounge and Borders Bookstore--and both times I've ended up in a lifeboat while my friends and comrades struggled to float. I'm not sure why that is. I'm no expert in grief, or in job-hunting, or even in books, but I keep coming back to this quote:

"The highest reward for a person's toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it." (John Ruskin)

This sentiment could not be more true when it comes to working with books.
When I started at Borders Bookstore a year and a half ago, I was elated. I'd really pushed to get that job, and I knew that working with books was where I belonged. Yes, I took a pay-cut... Because Borders paid legitimate experts in the field of books like they were high school drop-outs taking orders at McDonald's. Not that there's anything wrong with working for McDonald's... You see the pettiness cropping up? It does that a lot nowadays. But I've never really measured success and failure in dollars and cents.

I wish Borders would have pulled through the recession. I wish people, loosely referred to as "customers," had remembered that if you stop purchasing from a local store, that local store will die. If you buy a coffee while you browse the racks at Borders or Barnes and Noble or even your local independent, and then order what you want off of Amazon from your iPhone, that's not the same as patronizing the business. We weren't there to sell you coffee. I quit my job at Borders due to loss of hours--that was perhaps three weeks before the shit really hit the fan. I'm not a corporate mind-reader or anything; I just knew the business was dying. There are a lot of places available to lay the blame, but I know intimately how it looks and feels when a business is on its last legs... I think I could recognize that feeling with my eyes closed. And it feels a whole lot like "browsing."

I'll tell you something important, something that trumps all of the above self-indulgence:

Books aren't the problem. People still want books. Some may want them on their Kindle or Nook or iPad, but they still want them. And they still want people to help them find books. That's the irony, actually-- customers would come into Borders, accept our help locating a title or offering recommendations, and then tell us to our faces that they wanted to "check the price on Amazon." And we were supposed to smile and say "all right, no problem" when we wanted to say "next time find our own damn book, you lazy jerk!" We were not librarians, but most of our customers--even the nice ones--treated us like a library. It costs nothing for Amazon to let you browse all day long. It's costing the brick and mortar stores everything. "Browsing" is killing the bookstore; and I know nobody wants to hear that.

I found myself while working at Borders. That sounds really stupid. Ugh. Well, it's basically true. I went into that job a nervous actress-singer-painter-writer-poet with an unfinished manuscript and a chip on my shoulder. I didn't really know who or what I wanted to be when I grew up, or when I was going to grow up, or how. Working for that bookstore, surrounded by people who love the arts and love literature, made me happy every day. I loved my job in a way that I had never really loved acting, or even singing. I finished my book while working there. I started another. I worked through my screenplays and made decisions about grad school. I got married while working there. I became a grown-up while working for Borders, and I appreciate that so much. I am thankful to the staff I got to work with, who are, for the most part, incredibly giving human beings. They love books, and they loved their jobs, and they're really hurting now (even if they won't admit it). I know, because I'm really hurting too.

So, just know that you are in my prayers. You were my comrades-in-arms for eighteen wonderful months and I thank you for that. I hope you're proud of what you've become, because you are beautiful examples of humanity. Now go out into the world and find something better.


Two more excellent essays on the closing of 200 Borders stores:
The JQT Plan
Chicago Ex-Patriate