The news came today that Borders will be liquidated, and its passing saddens me. I’ve spent countless dollars at its stores on books and CDs starting when I was about 17, so much of what I’ve heard and read was something I’d acquired from there. The stores in Indianapolis (the biggest bookstore in the state) and Bloomington hired me when I had no business being paid by anyone to do anything, and gave me a 25% discount on books and CDs. There was also coffee to be had, and I found that the brown-sugar cubes at the coffee-fixings counter made excellent snacks when shelving a “V-cart,” as they were called,* of Spanish-English dictionaries or Philosophy books.
What Borders gave to a curious kid from a smallish town** where the local bookstore was a tiny store in the mall was selection. Everything in print by Albert Camus. A university press book on Richard Ford, which I never actually did buy, but still, it was there for someone to. A magazine section that carried everything someone could get a printer to make a dozen copies of. (End-of-day pick-up always involved putting the Playboy and Penthouse copies back on the shelves, after finding them in the men’s room. Yes.) A small store didn’t have the room for it, but a big store did, and a big store had the foot traffic and chances to sell a bajillion copies of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and/or whatever else Oprah recommended.
For a while, Borders allowed customers to try out CDs. In the post-iTunes era, it’s hard to remember how revolutionary it was that you could
listen to the music before you bought it. I compared Esa-Pekka Salonen’s and Daniele Gatti’s versions of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and went with Gatti’s. I’m sure I did this with other discs, but I don’t remember it. It was a Golden Age, I tell you.
The last one I worked at was in Bloomington, a short drive from my apartment and on the way to the IU campus. I had to quit after corporate installed a head manager named Gerry, pronounced with a J as in “joyless,” whose last name I have blocked from my memory. He was posted to various stores on the verge of unionizing, with the intention of making everyone’s lives miserable so they’d quit. Sexual harassment charges were leveled, his gold chains and weird teeth and habit of bringing dirty magazines up to the register for in-depth discussion creeped the hell out of me. I knew of the history of trying to unionize there, but no one had ever asked me to join, no cards were asked to be signed, no songs of solidarity were sung. Yet this jive-talking pagan was there, and it was like trying to breathe through plastic. Or at least it was when I wasn’t playing the greatest game yet devised by two bookstore clerks ever.
I wish I could remember the other guy’s name, who was a fellow beanpole*** in search of a way of enlivening the hours. I’m embarrassed to share this height-of-nerdiness story, but in a childhood and college period filled with nerdy pursuits, which then grew into a nerdy career, it’s not so bad.
We decided that whoever had rung up more hot women through a shift would be the winner.
We’d keep score on Post-It notes to the side of the register. We started out that one hot woman equaled one point. This soon had to be amended, with some getting two points, others an extra half-point, and so on. We were each allowed one disqualification per night with no questions asked. But the real skill of the game came in playing the line of customers. It was a single line which fed into four or five registers. There might be a hot girl in line, but she’d be five people back. So, you’d have to time your customers in such a way that she’d end up at your register. Some customers needed to be kept a little too long at the register (“Would you like that gift-wrapped?” “Is this the first John Grisham novel you have read?”) so that other clerks could clear out the four non-hot people in front of the hot one. When she was next in line, and you had a customer, that one would get sped right through, with the receipt shoved in the book and not bagged. Winning was at stake.****
I think I actually did win, because I did go out with one of those women. She was a brunette, and I think I met a bunch of her friends one night and wine coolers were involved. Twice. I think we actually did go out twice, and I wish I remembered what happened.*****
*So called because of their V shape, which allowed books to be stacked on them. There were single- and double-V carts (not called W carts, mysteriously)
**Muncie, Ind., metro population 150,000. Yes, this is small.
***I am less beanpole-esque today.
****Also, a hot girl.