Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Wrong Chain Went Bankrupt

I read this post by Ezra Klein yesterday, and I realized that my history with Borders is mostly the same as his--I used to hang out there all the time, just studying, especially while in graduate school (an old, and I suppose mostly inexplicable habit of mine, going all the way back my undergraduate years: I always found bookstores more amenable to serious reading and work than libraries, even university ones), but as I moved into the workforce and I got my own office spaces and we moved away from big cities, my time spent there, and my patronage of it, rapidly declined. So yeah, I'm part of the reason they're going bankrupt too. Bummer.

Still, I said only "mostly the same" as Ezra, because there is one big difference--once I finished with my coursework and moved into dissertation writing mode, and my schedule loosened up, I started taking jobs around Washington DC (I received my PhD from Catholic University of America), and the jobs I found were in bookstores. Specifically, Borders and Barnes & Noble; yes, I worked for months at them both. So, as one of them likely passes into the sunset, or at least the everything-must-go bankruptcy proceedings twilight, let me explain why I really kind of wish it was B&N biting it, rather than Borders. (Keep in mind that these judgments are entirely based on my experiences at Borders and Barnes & Noble stores in Arlington and Alexandria, VA, circa 1999-2001.)

There were, I'll happily admit, a couple of things that I really liked about B&N:

1) Book orders came through more quickly at B&N than at Borders.
2) Despite being overpriced, the snacks at their cafe which much better (though that's entirely due to their outsourcing to the highly polished Starbucks empire).
3) Their children section was better laid out and more spacious, allowing much more freedom for children (including Megan, when Melissa would bring her by when she stopped to see me during work) to run around, explore different books and toys, listen to books being read, etc.
4) The whole ambiance of the store, from the shelving to the murals on the wall, was much more homey and personal, however calculated it may have been.

Still, those reasons aren't enough to stop me from wishing that it wasn't B&N emerging as the likely sole big-box-bookstore survivor of what no doubt will someday be referred to us The Great Amazon/Kindle Scourge. For example:

1) B&N made me wear a tie; Borders didn't. I'm committed to wearing a tie and jacket now, but back then it necessitated that I go to the bathroom to change every time.
2) Borders always appeared to me to have a much better and broader selection of scholarly books in politics, philosophy, history, and religion (which was the stuff I cared about).
3) For that matter, Borders also had a much better and more variable music selection.
4) Borders had a clientele that was much more fun to work with. At B&N, I was far more likely to encounter someone looking for a very particular book; at Borders, the typical customer seemed more interested in searching, getting advice, etc. (Yes, quite possibly those subjective impressions were entirely a function of the demographics of where those stores were located, but still...)
5) Along those lines, I never faced the same level of organizational and shelving specifics at B&N as I did at Borders; at B&N, managers would follow up to make sure that every book was always in place, whereas Borders seemed less intense about it all. The result was that I saw a lot more people just wandering and browsing at Borders than at B&N, and I liked that.
6) Like clientele, like staff: Borders, in my experience, had a looser and more interpersonal staffing structure. I was working at the register one day, and a manager heard me answer a customer's question about Dvorak, and immediately moved me over to being a floor manager in the music section. At the B&N I worked at, things were much more hierarchical.
7) As benefits what I observed as greater flexibility in the staffing structure, Borders also had greater variety in its staff. While working there, I got to know an ex-con from Alabama, a guy who lived in a commune, an independent business owner, a JD and two ABDs. Yes, I know that last one was probably because we were in Washington DC, and yes, I know it's a cliche...

...but it made for fun conversations while stacking books.

Oh well. I suppose I ought to keep an eye out on the one Borders in Wichita--fortunately on our side of town--and be ready to raid it when the fire sale begins.


Scott--DFW said...

Love the Simpsons snippet.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I used to love the Borders in Pentagon City. You are right about Borders having a better selection of scholarly books than Barnes and Noble. The Pentagon City store had a great world music collection as well.

Russell Arben Fox said...

That's the very one I worked at, Otto!

nancydrew said...

I always found the physical setting at Border's more honest and contemporary. B&N does the dark wood/faux library thing, which apparently has prevailed. Luckily we have independent bookstores (plural) in the small city where I live--thanks for reminding to to think before pressing the "complete purchase" button.