26 January 2010

Erasing The Borders...

6 Magha - Year 1931 (Saka Era)

It was big news in the UK over the X-Mas shopping period last year. Borders UK, the chain of bookstores spun off of the parent corporation in the U.S., was in administration. Competition with on-line retailers, poor management and expensive high-street rents led to it's demise. A couple of weeks after the administration announcement, a further statement was issued, saying that all of the UK shops would close, following a 'shut-down' mega-sale. Now it's being revealed that Borders U.S. will be closing a further 200 stores this year. In the U.K. and the U.S., it looks as if the shopping centers and high streets just got a bit more homogenous, with just Waterstones and Blackwell (in the UK) to choose from (if you get a choice, as Blackwell don't have that many shops).

It strikes me as a bit sad, as Borders (at least in the beginning) tried to be a sort-of 'mom and pop' chain (I know, an oxymoronic assertion). I had never heard of Borders Books & Music before a store opened in Manchester, Conn. in 1994. I did apply to be part of the original crew, when the store was setting up, but I didn't make the cut (I can't imagine how many applications they had, but I suspect it was a lot). I started shopping there regularly, as their CD selection back then seemed truly astounding. There was an 'Out-To-Lunch' section with stuff from Art Zoyd, The Residents, Lard Free and tons of other bands I'd never heard of. Now, I realise that was the work of a clued-in staff, but it's also the result of a laid-back policy in which the staff could order that music for stock. Pretty amazing, for a chain.

I finally got my chance to join up in 1996. I had an interview and an author and music test...no really, I did, for 'product knowledge'. I scored poorly on the author bit, but fairly well on the music. I was assigned to the music dept. (natch!). Disaster nearly struck, when I was offered a full-time job in an architecture firm the same week. As I have a degree in architecture and had never worked in the field, I thought I should take the firm's offer (even though it was only a courier position--gotta start somehwere..). Borders hired me for a full-time job as well..but in another cool concession on their part, agreed to keep me on as a part-timer, helping on weekends. I ended up staying for seven years--mostly part-time, but I did a full-time stretch for a year, when the aforementioned firm made me redundant in 1999. I found a job at another firm in 2000 and changed my hours back to part-time, then cut them back even more to just a contingent (for when regulars called out sick and they needed cover for the evening shift). By then, however, most of the really cool critters that I started with in '96 were long-gone and the company itself slid into corporate doldrums - even toying with the idea of employee uniforms, which I despised from my days at Strawberries and Sears in the early 90s.

I finally handed in my notice in January 2004 - a month before I moved to the UK. I discovered the Borders in Oxford in summer 2003, when visting Pixie for the first time. After the move, I thought "well, if I can't find a job - I could try there." That's pretty much what happened. I temped for a short while and (in a bit of desperation after walking out of my temp gig at Oxfam) applied there in July 2004. I got the job, but couldn't start until September. I stayed for a year, until a 'disagreement' between myself and the general manager forced me to leave in October 2005. While the Oxford store was much more corporatized than even the Conn. store (time-keeping was especially enforced), I still worked with some great people. I continued shopping there every so often and would chat with some of the critters I knew, who were still working in the shop.

Now, as anyone who's worked in retail will know, it's not all a barrel of laughs. Dealing with John and Jane Q. Public for 40 hours per week can be a strain on the calmest, most jovial critters. Some clowns, repeating that "Customer Is Always Right" mantra, used it as a get-out clause to excuse their childish and boorish behaviour. We all had run-ins with difficult customers...I did more than a few times and it would just ruin your day. The pay was crap and Borders also wouldn't allow employees to unionize. As I've mentioned, the corporate symptoms worsened year after year, until the only difference between them and other chain shops was the decor..oh and you could still wear T-shirts and jeans to work--but even that stopped when they brought in red polo shirts for everyone to wear, in the last few years.

For all that, though, there were moments of transcendence. Sometimes, especially in the Manchester store, the whole crew would be firing on all cylinders with jokes, or making insanely great in-store CD mixes or even just getting the mundane work finshed. The shifts seemed to fly by and it made work seem like fun. I strongly suspect almost everyone's had moments like that at a job. I had as well--but at Borders, especially the first couple of years I was there, I never had so many. There was a short while when Jimmy C. and I worked the Friday night shift. We used to have a blast goofing on weird customers, putting together killer in-store mixes and crafting bizarre in-jokes. I swear, there were times when I almost couldn't wait to get there, because it was such a good time. In a sense, we were being paid to listen to music and goof around...in between the mundane stuff, of course--shelving CDs and tidying the department. I used to think "this is what work should be like". For that reason, I will miss working at Borders.

As a wrap-up, here are my Top Ten favourite moments from my time at Borders (both U.S. and UK)...the ones I can remember, anyway. In no particular order:


1. "The Nutter Status Quo Fan" (UK): The Oxford store used to get some fairly high-profile critters for in-store signings (as England is a smaller place and because Manchester, Conn. can't complete with Boston and NYC for the big names..). The Quo's book, XS All Areas, had just been published--so Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi were at the Oxford store for a book signing. Despite numerous placards stating that they would only sign copies of the book...people showed up with CDs, LPs and posters and other memorabilia. One bloke was standing in the queue mumbling to himself and acting a bit agitated. I approached him to let him know that they wouldn't be signing his VHS tape and ticket stubs--he lashed out with "You're not Quo, mate! They'll sign this--you don't know!" and some other related babble. I let the security guys know about him and he was eventually removed from the queue, as he was starting to disturb others, and ejected from the shop. He later destroyed some terra cotta plant pots outside of a restaurant down the street. I guess he really wanted that videotape signed. Oh yeah, Parfitt and Rossi signed the booklet of my copy of the Matchstick Men CD.

2. "Jimmy C. skools Matt D." (U.S.): When I first started at the Manchester store, I was pretty intimidated by the music crew. They were very knowledgeable about lots of crazy obscure music and there was lots of snobbery about. This one guy, Matt, was very into funk and soul. He was cool enough, but he was constantly going on about how prog-rock didn't groove, which I was a bit rankled by. One day, he was talking about the Ohio Players and said "Bill Bruford just can't hit a groove" and prog can't swing, etc. Jimmy goes over to the CD racks, brings back Gong's You and pops it in the disc player. He cues up You Never Blow Yr Trip Forever and lets the intro play. For those who haven't heard it, it has a real funky intro with nice interplay between the bass and drums. Jimmy then starts naming out the time signatures. "5/4"....7/4..." Matt didn't admit that he'd been schooled, but he didn't much of a come-back either, as I recall.

3. "The Righteous Moss" (UK): I made some friends at the UK store, but a few of them were real muso-pals. One of them, Mark P., is defintely a rawker...besides being a funny bloke and all-around freakball. One day, after he had grown his hair out, someone said his hair looked like a big moss. He riffed on that and came up with 'Righteous Moss'. I said that sounded like a great band name. We starting toying around with a goof band concept, where everything would be hooked up to a wah-wah pedal, even sitars and didgeridoos, kinda like Miles Davis's early 70s groups. A Welsh girl called Dominique, who also worked at Borders, volunteered to be a Stacia for the band, plus play Stylophone (hooked up to a wah-wah, natch!). Sadly, we never got it together enough to even have a jam session...but the legend of the Moss looms large.

4. "Promos!" (U.S.): O.K., this one's more of a bunch of moments than one single moment. When the Manchester store first opened, digital listening stations hadn't been perfected yet, so the stations were a carousel-tray CD player hooked up to a set of headphones. Each genre of music had roughly 10 different stations. The labels would send promo discs out to the shops for all of the featured albums every month. Once the month finished and a new bunch arrived - the crew were allowed to take them home. Man, that was brilliant. I beefed up my collection with tons of discs. Good stuff, too...not just the latest crap records that no-one would remember in two years. I got the deluxe editions of The Who's Live At Leeds and Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, to name just a couple. I was gutted when I started in the Oxford store and found out the listening stations were digital...so no promos. Actually, I did get a promo of Richard Hawley's Coles Corner, but that was it.

5. "The Sunday Night Jam" (U.S.): I can't remember who finagled permission from the general manager, but one Sunday night, after the store had closed, some of us musos brought in our guitars and had a jam in the music section. Zack S. even hauled in his drum kit. I think there were 3 or 4 of us with guitars, 1 with a bass and Zack's kit. Most of it was a sloppy, loose jam. I remember this one guy, Cory, a neo-Dead/Phish-head, started up a three or four chord vamp. I was trying to find different chords in key with his, just to make it a bit more interesting..but he showed me what he was playing, as if to say "this is what you're supposed to be doing", which put me off his jam. Four guitars chugging the same chords in unison sounds very boring to me. I also remember trying to start up an impromptu version of Floyd's Interstellar Overdrive, but my skillz aren't good enough to keep it all together and it floundered after we all finished the main riff. A fun night, though. The Sunday night sessions were supposed to become a regular thing, but as far as my memory serves me, that was the only one.

6. "Brushes With 'Slebs'" (U.K.): As I've mentioned, the Oxford store had quite a few high-profile in-store events. While I was there, there were signings from the Little Britain duo, Michael Palin, the aforementoned Quo duo, Rory Bremner, Clive Woodward (the 2003 England rugby team coach), Ray Mears (the survival bloke off the TV), Jon Ronson, Will Self and a bunch of others. The store also attracted some famous critters as well--I wasn't there when ol' Billy Boy Clinton stopped in...but I did ring up Thom Yorke's purchases a couple of times. I found the Scene-It DVD game for Gaz Coombes of Supergrass (really nice bloke, by the way) and had a long-ish chat with Bruce Johnston, of The Beach Boys, but to be honest, he seemed a bit of a tit to me. I think I also rang up a purchase by Mick Quinn of Supergrass and saw Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead perusing the jazz CDs one day. I did leave them alone and didn't get all 'fanboy' on them...it seemed to be the best thing to do.

7. "Guys, Guys...The Supa-Jam!" (U.S.): Ian S. and I would talk from time to time about getting jam sessions together outside of work. A few times, we actually did manage to get the crew over to Joel B's place for a jam and recorded the results. Joel lived a ways away from me, so I didn't get to join as much as I would've liked. Anyway, Ian and I started jokingly referring to the sessions as the "Super Jam". One Saturday shift, we were talking about it, when Zack came running out of the stock-room with a large arm-full of CDs in their theft-proof 'keepers'. He yells out in a really nerdy voice "Guys! guys! The Supa-jam, the Supa-jam!!", then does a crazy prat-fall. The CDs went flying about three feet in front of him and crashed to the floor. There were some customers around and they just stared at him. I seriously nearly pissed myself, I was laughing so much. I suppose you had to be there--but that still makes me smile when I think about it.

8. "The Bluegrass Band" (U.S.): Sometimes on a Friday night, live music would be featured in the department. One night, a bluegrass band played with a girl singer. I can't remember what they were called. They were decent musicians and the woman's voice was alright. I'm not a huge bluegrass fan and while I can appreciate the musicianship involved, it does seem to start sounding the same after a while. They finished their sets and as was Jimmy's and my custom, we heralded the closing of the store by putting Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting in the disc player. As The Heavenly Music Corporation started, we watched them pack up their gear and make little asides about the long drones in the music. Eventually, one of them, the mandolin-player (a short, scraggly-looking dude with greasy hair and beard) sidled up to the information desk and asked what we were playing. Jimmy told him and (according to Jimmy - I wasn't at the desk at that moment) he suddenly said in a hushed, conspiriatorial tone, "Those long drones...that's what they used in Waco, man." I'm not sure what Jimmy's response was to that. Hey, just 'cause you're paranoid...

9. "The Local Freaks" (U.S.): I strongly suspect that every Borders store had it's own collection of local weirdos who would practically move into the place. They'd be there every day, or at least every weekend--grabbing a magazine or newspaper off of the racks, plopping themselves in one of the chairs scattered around and well, staying...all day, sometimes into the evening as well. Some would wander around the store, pestering other punters and eventually get thrown out--only to return the next day..or week..or month. I'm not just talking about the garden-variety lechers who show up and ogle the young female staff members--I'm talking about the hardcore nutjobs. The Manchester, Conn. store had some right legends. There was "11-Digit Boy" (I can't remember how he got that name), "Creepy Laughing Guy", who had quit his medication and used to draw in a notebook and emit shrill laughs to himself, "Tweedle-Dee And Tweedle-Dum", a rare double-act--this short fat older guy and a short fat younger guy who used to sit in the chairs all day reading newspapers. There was also "Anti-Claus", an old smelly guy with a huge white beard and glasses. He was eventually barred from the store for weeing all over the floor in the gents. I suspect there were a few more that I'm missing off of this list. The Oxford store had a few, too - like "The Romance Beast" and "The Polish Newspaper Guy"--but nothing on the calibre of Store 60.

10. "Jimmy's Announcement" (U.S.): Another classic moment in the Manchester store. A local jam-ish rock band was playing one night in the music department. Whenever there's an event in-store, the staff has to announce it over the P.A. every so often to remind the punters what time it will be starting and that. Jimmy was given the task of making the announcements for this particular gig. I'm not sure how he got through it without laughing, but he gave the gig time and the usual spiel, then he said at the end of it: "So if rock and roll is on your agenda for this evening, head to the music department." Almost pissed myself again when I heard it and it still makes me laugh now.

1 comment:

Singing Bear said...

Excellent and entertaining run-down of your Borders life. :)

The loss of another book store is seriously disturbing.