Borders is dead. I'm sure newspapers, magazines, and blogs across the world are using metaphors like "dinosaur" to describe the end of this once-great bookstore chain. For me, however, a former employee, it's more akin to Old Yeller: a once great and loyal friend who, unfortunately, got sick and had to be put down behind the barn.
My sorrow, though, isn't for the death of this company but for its employees. They're the real victims here. In my store (which closed in April), we had an amazing group. There was the elementary school teacher who worked every weekend and made the most magical children's recommendations; the young woman who could guide both newbies and skilled knitters alike through the needlecraft books; the tattooed graduate student who could talk your ear off about Thomas Hobbes... or Batman, your choice; and the spitfire supervisor who could hunt down the perfect mystery novel. That's just five people in my store. Imagine the number of original, talented people in the other 600-plus stores that have closed or will close later this year.
As for that supervisor, she had been with Borders (and its various mall stores) for 19 years. In the end, did anyone from Borders tell her personally that she was losing her job? No. She read it in the newspaper. No letter. No phone call. Not even an e-mail.
To me, the sad thing about Borders's demise is that the employees suffered so much in the past three years. During the Ron Marshall "Reign of Terror," the company threatened people's jobs if they didn't sell specific books that Borders wanted to make bestsellers. When the regime changed, although promises of better days were made, it was just business as usual. Borders's belated entrance into the e-book business only saddled its employees with unsellable and often faulty e-readers and drove customers away with a Web site that moved at glacier speed and was about as easy to traverse as a minefield. To top it off, when signups for the new Borders Rewards Plus program started to dwindle, jobs were again threatened.
The irony is that the very thing that Borders abused—its employees—could have saved it. All Borders ever had to do was talk to its employees to find out how to be a better bookstore. Those on the front line can tell you what works (better selection!) and what doesn't (glittery pink Jesus statues!). Borders wasted time and money on so-called experts when all the experts they ever needed were already on the payroll. Not to mention their many attempts to poll its customers. Do you want to know what your customers think? Why not talk to your store employees? They speak to the customers every day.
Borders also failed to realize that its employees were its greatest marketing tool. Any way you look at it, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and all the others all look the same and sell the same stuff. So how could Borders have distinguished itself? Its employees should have been its brand identity. That teacher with the magical recommendations? Put her on store signage! Tell the world her first name, store, and why she does what she does. Same thing for the knitter, the supervisor, and the tattooed grad student. Not only would this have given Borders the identity it so needed, it would have pointed out to consumers what a Web site can't do: listen and make a real, personal recommendation. It would have let the employees do what they are great at: hand-selling. All by simply saying, "Come on, ask us for a book."
It wasn't just bad management. In the end, it was Borders's lack of regard for its employees that hammered the final nails into its own coffin. It's a shame that many of those same employees will now have to endure the soul-sucking liquidation process, only to join the masses of the unemployed. And without severance.
Perhaps they might take inspiration from Kira Apple, a fellow former Borders employee: she opened her own bookstore. The Wise Owl Bookstore in West Reading, Pa., is doing well because Kira is doing what she does best: hand-selling.
Raymond M. Rose worked at Borders for seven years. He is the author of two novels, The Fire Inside and Better Together, and is currently working on a YA steampunk novel. For more, check out www.raymondmrose.com.