Creatively Destroying Borders

Books, Featured — By on September 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing. (Ecclesiastes 2:11, The Message translation)

Death by Borders

On occasion, working at Borders bookstore made me as furious as I’ve ever been. We’re talking white-hot trembling can’t-see-straight RAGE, which usually followed the inconsiderate words or nonsensical policies of yet another of my superiors. I yelled maybe twice; more often I kept my mouth shut. After absorbing whatever it was, I’d retire to my desk and stare at a blank wall until my eyes and brain regained their focus. And then I’d cheerfully help customers buy stuff.

Sometimes, usually while counting money at 11pm, working at Borders filled me with despair. Was THIS what I was doing with my music degree and boundless ambitions and painfully limited time on earth? Accomplishing tasks that could be just as easily done by robots or those sophisticated chimpanzees in Project X? Wasn’t I meant for better things than working in retail? And then I’d go back to accomplishing my tasks, deriving from them satisfaction and even joy.

At such low points, convinced of my own superiority and indispensability, I had the fantasy that’s common to every retail employee in the world, whether they’ll admit it or not: DESTRUCTION. Nothing so crass as theft or arson for me, but something that would undermine the business from the inside and show everybody who was boss. Since I was in charge of the overhead music, these fantasies often included recording a CD of unflattering comments about our regional manager — or maybe about the company’s idiotic and humiliating “Make Book” policy, which required that we recommend the same trade paperback title to EVERY CUSTOMER — and playing that CD on continuous loop, over and over, on a busy Saturday afternoon. I would also misfile a bunch of cookbooks.

Well, OK, my plan wasn’t all worked out, but somehow I’d bring that company to its knees. But it didn’t happen that way. In 2009, after working at Borders for 10 years, I left on good terms, opting for the vastly different satisfaction and joy of child rearing, part-time church music, and nonprofit music criticism. People would ask if I missed Borders, and I didn’t. Not at all. Besides seeing my coworkers every day and listening to profane music in the car, a pleasure denied stay-at-home dads, there was no aspect of the job that I missed.

And then Borders closed.

What downloading hath wrought.

My Borders closed on Friday, September 16. I happened to visit the day before, little knowing the end was nigh. I hadn’t expected to be affected by it, but a store in the throes of liquidation is a breathtaking sight. Gone were the shelves and overstock bins I’d stocked and browsed, along with all those rolling wooden ladders. I’m not a big advice-giver, but over the years I surely annoyed many employees by telling them, “Any day you get to climb a ladder is a good day.” From the tops of the ladders you could see the remarkable color and variety of a store full of books and the people who loved them. Now, not so much. Guys were climbing around in the ceiling dismantling the stereo system I’d programmed. The cafe where I’d played music was bare. The office area where we’d cracked jokes and talked politics was stripped, and the multimedia cage, where I’d prepped thousands of CD and DVD new releases — and invented the staff walkie-talkie game “Tagline Trivia” — had vanished. 10 years of memories scrambled around in my brain, and with them the abrupt realization that I’d never have any of it back. Unexpected absence plays a cruel trick: it sets and overturns the table at the same time.

Sean tests shelves for a potential buyer.

So I enjoyed the only aspect of the job that was still around. I cracked up at John’s jokes, hugged a sad Shauna, learned that Ken’s son is way older than I’d remembered, and choked back tears alongside Kathy, with whom I’d opened the store. And, you know, I bought some books for 90% off. (Since I’m sure you’re wondering: new John Ashbery, old Peer Gynt, a guide to the Proust I’d bought for 60% off.) As Art rang me up, I mentioned that it was all very sad, and he shared his excellent coping strategy: “I just take that sadness and turn it into anger.”

I’m also not a big prayer requester, but please — say a prayer for my friends, and for all the other Borders employees who are out of jobs.

***

Now, about that anger.

In 2003 my colleague O. H. Michael Smith, reading the tea leaves, produced a “Concept Paper” (i.e., a very sane-sounding manifesto) pointing out Borders’ increasing irrelevance and a way forward. The title was a mouthful — Community-Focused Business Model: An Approach to Greater Customer Loyalty & Revenue by Creating Store-Level Group Incentives for Employees. He distributed this paper to everyone up the company’s chain of command, including, presumably, the Borders CEO. Whether Michael’s approach would have worked will forever remain a mystery, since the folks in charge didn’t acknowledge its existence. A few years later they laid Michael off.

The whole paper makes for good reading — I still keep it in my “Manifestos” binder — and its three most salient points were:

1. Borders wasn’t in the books-and-music business so much as it was in the knowledge business, and unless the company understood what the knowledge business looked like in an electronic era, we’d be doomed to failure. (At this point, the Borders website directed all traffic to our online “partner” Amazon, iTunes was two years old, and eReaders were still a pipe dream for everyone.) Michael cited “the often repeated story of buggy whip manufacturers going bankrupt because they did not realize they were in the transportation business.”

2. To maintain a bricks-and-mortar business, the company needed to create a customer loyalty program and a database of customer purchasing habits. (Done, a few years later! The Borders Rewards program managed the neat trick of pissing off customers while being completely free, thereby giving customers less of an incentive to actually use the program.)

3. Borders needed to cultivate a less disposable work force, which we could achieve through profit sharing.

About that last one: In the wake of Borders’ demise, people have made some unkind online comments about the Borders workforce — about how we didn’t know anything about books, basically. This is largely unfair and untrue. I worked with plenty of people who read way more than I do, and I watched minimum-wage cashiers become expert merchandisers and supervisors, really learning the ins and outs of the book biz. BUT! As a former trainer, I also know that turnover was very high, and that Borders hired as cheaply as possible, aiming for part-time positions without benefits. As time went on, employees were less and less invested in the work of bookselling, and might as well have been selling stationery or grilling equipment or blankets. (Oh wait…) They certainly weren’t invested financially. Borders could have been any low-paying retail job, and without a union contract or a profit-sharing motive, employees had little incentive to do anything besides punch the clock, collect their checks, and quit when something better turned up.

From reading The Economist magazine on my lunch breaks, I know that Borders’ bankruptcy is called “creative destruction”. That’s a term coined by the late economist Joseph Schumpeter, and it means that, by eliminating Borders, our efficient economy is clearing the way for Something Better, and that all my unemployed friends will either get hired by a new wave of Something Betters or realize their entrepreneurial dreams. All this creative smack is laid down by the Invisible Hand of the Market, that self-regulating pseudo-deity first postulated by the economist Adam Smith. The Invisible Hand keeps our economy nimble and relevant, so that when a company slips into irrelevancy, that company goes the way of the buggy whip makers and the bookstores.

If you’re in charge of a company, you’ve gotta stay more creative than the Hand doing the destroying. The leadership of Borders did not. At the end of the ‘90s, the folks running Borders decided that rapid store expansion was the way to go, so they spent vast sums of money flooding markets with Borders stores, including sleekly-designed “stores of the future” and other such gimmicks. You can read the whole sad litany of bad decisions here. Of course, it’s easy to pick on Borders’ leadership NOW, with all the facts laid out before us. Doesn’t everyone make mistakes?

Those new sign templates were a wise investment.

Well, yeah — but when CEOs make mistakes that drive their companies to bankruptcy and eliminate thousands of jobs, the CEOs STILL GET PAID. For instance, a Borders CEO who presided over three years of downward spiral received a $3 million golden parachute. An earlier CEO received a $4 million golden parachute after only five months of work. The term “golden parachute” actually appears in this infuriating sentence from the Borders 2009 annual report, which allowed for future such payouts: “If [the then-current CEO] is subject to the golden parachute excise tax under Section 4999 of the Internal Revenue Code, the Company will make a tax equalization payment… to insulate him against the impact of the excise tax.” If you want top-level “talent” to run your business, apparently you have to write this stuff into their contracts. Over the course of my 10 years, store employees paid for our leaders’ mistakes and parachutes by gradually giving up payroll hours, pay raises, the company’s 401(k) match, a monthly merchandise credit, and FREE COFFEE AND TEA. (That one stung.) We were often reminded that Borders was in trouble because of OUR job performance. In the stunning and inevitable dénouement, which might have held some tragic beauty if this were a stage play, the most loyal employees finally lost their jobs. Meanwhile, CEOs were getting tax-free parting gifts for screwing up.

Sorry, I need to stare at the wall now.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr tells us that this injustice, along with all the attendant anger and destructive violence, is built into capitalist society. This isn’t to say you can’t make improvements — say, taxing the heck out of golden parachutes as a disincentive — or that some other system, like socialism, is any better. Fair-minded voices like Niebuhr, Paul Krugman, and The Economist have made a sometimes reluctant peace with capitalism, and so can I. But if anyone tells you that capitalism runs the world as God intended, they’re idolatrous and fooling themselves. Either that, or they’re being played for a fool by the Koch brothers.

When I worked for Borders, I took a perverse pleasure in outlasting those well-paid nitwits. I’d imagine confronting them — prophetically, ecclesiastically — with the truth that their policies, their jobs, their company would not endure, that it would all someday crumble and amount to nothing. Well, the day is here and nobody feels any better, because the problem is bigger than one company, bigger even than one method of organizing an economy. It’s a problem of existence. So let’s also pray that we can endure until the Invisible Hand of the One True God creatively destroys it all — capitalism, socialism, politics, the internet, 401(k)s, and whatever else we’re using to hang our earthly hats. Here’s to showing all us capitalist pricks a better way.

Photos courtesy former Borders employees John Bishop and Sean Collett. Thanks, guys!

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    7 Comments

  • Steve Simpson says:

    Not only a cautionary tale, but the best article I’ve read in a while.

  • Dan Obenchain says:

    Thanks for this Josh.

  • Michael D. Bobo says:

    I’m laughing, crying and fuming. Corporate greed is everywhere. I’m watching my CEOs laughing to the bank while I work 2 jobs to make it. I proudly hold a high middle finger to this seedy underbelly of America.

    Thanks Josh this was a terrific piece and I applaud your ability to see the lighter side of this very sad day for us book lovers.

  • Benjamin Dolson says:

    Definitely one of my favorite articles as well. Well done Josh!

    My reaction to the Borders collapse is sort of mixed. I went to school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the first Borders. And I collect books in a way that is incompatible with my small Brooklyn apartment. I will probably never own an e-reader (though I like them in theory).

    And yet, honestly, screw Borders. Like the article says, Borders was a big chain store that happened to sell books (or at least mostly books). There’s nothing sad about a big box store closing because its executives were horrible at their jobs. The hourly-wage employees are definitely the victims here.

    And let’s not forget…Borders put a lot of indie book stores out of business when they were on their expansion campaign.

    It’s interesting that Borders’s failure came within the same month of news that reading rates are actually up in the US right now for the first time in 50 years.

    The book is not dead…just Borders’s packaging of it.

  • Matthew says:

    Josh – this is a great article. What has happened at Borders is happening in the downtown skyscrapers as well. The growing dichotomy between the rich and poor has never been so glaringly apparent, and yet dutifully ignored.

  • josh says:

    Thanks all! These responses have meant a lot to me.

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