College was supposed to be the time of my life, but my hopeful dreams of making lifelong friends and attending crazy parties quickly faded when I realized I didn’t fit in on campus and, more importantly, was falling out of love with learning.
I started working at Borders during second semester freshman year at a top-rated business school in Massachusetts. Some friends and I had gone to the mall to eat at The Cheesecake Factory. Other than Cheesecake and Gap, Borders was the only store we could afford in the upscale mall. Immediately drawn to the discount tables outside the store, I rifled through the books. Before leaving the mall, I filled out an application to Borders.
“I can borrow any book for free?” I asked, shocked, during orientation. It was a whole different world going from customer to employee. Earning $6.25 an hour wasn’t much to brag about, but I had a full scholarship; loans and my summer job covered most of the housing costs, student fees and my meal plan. I was excited about earning spending money and having thousands of books and hundreds of magazines at my disposal. The part-time cashier position gave me an employee discount on books, CDs and other items. I didn’t care about the magazine discount. I leafed through them during lulls at the register or during my lunch breaks.
I’ve never been a coffee drinker, but I loved tea and hot cocoa with whipped cream and fresh out-of-the oven chocolate chip cookies. For employees, these items were less than a dollar, but depending on who was behind the register, and especially when I had to sub when the café was understaffed, I would get them for free.
Later, when I became a full-timer an added perk was the House Account, meaning we could charge a certain dollar amount to the store. Once a year, usually in the fall, Employee Appreciation Day let us purchase things at a 40% discount so employees spent months stockpiling things we intended to buy on EAD, especially boxed sets of books and CDs that we intended to charge to the House Account.
The store was shaped like a horseshoe with the bookstore entrance on one end and the music store entrance on the other. The café was nestled in the curve. Entering on the book side, you were greeted by novelty items: bookmarks, picture frames, journals and Harry Potter paraphernalia. Somehow I had missed the beginning of the Harry Potter phenomenon but I was thrust into it at Borders. Before long I had memorized the order and titles of the first three books, just in time for the release of the 700-page Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The store was a madhouse on release day with both adults and children dressing up in Hogwarts attire to pick up their reserved copies. I remember seeing one of my Babson professors and his two children. They weren’t dressed up, but it was jarring to get a glimpse of his personal life. I was also uncomfortable because his class was one of the ones in which I was struggling.
On any given day, there were interesting customers. There were knee-high stacks of all the Potter titles in the front of the store and in the children’s section for easy access. Even so, people would rush into the store breathlessly asking for them as if they were afraid we’d be sold out. A man once refused to sign his credit card slip with the red pen I offered him because he believed it was bad luck. Oddly enough I picked up his strange superstition. I noticed that an older woman buying books for her grandchildren not only had “Mrs.” printed on her credit card, but she also signed “Mrs.” I once spotted PhD on a credit card. Rather than deal with her own child’s temper tantrum, a mother recruited my help. On my hands and knees, I coaxed the upset little boy to hand me the toy his mother refused to purchase. She told me I should go into childcare.
Sometimes customers were quite rude. A lady on the phone berated me for not knowing the company president’s name. “For goodness sakes, I don’t expect you to be having tea with him, but you should know his name.” I think I hung up on her. One of the most pompous customers to enter the store was a doctor who came in wearing dress slacks and shoes, but had on the top of his scrubs. His name and MD were monogrammed over his left breast. The store was closing early either for Christmas or Thanksgiving and he didn’t appreciate being rushed. “In my profession, I don’t rush people out.” One of the managers tried to explain that we were in the business of selling books not saving lives and that all of us wanted to go home to be with our families for the holiday. Dr. Selfish made it known that he sometimes had to work the whole day on holidays.
It was fun to witness book pop culture. Before working in a bookstore, I avoided best seller lists because I felt like I was being a copy cat, but this soon changed. I usually read books recommended by people I know or grab titles that intrigue me as I walk up and down aisles. This was the era of the Oprah Winfrey Show. We had a permanent Oprah display that featured past and present Book Club selections and books mentioned on the show. In advance of a show airing, managers received notification and boxes of the title that would be mentioned on the show. We mocked customers who came in looking “for that book mentioned on Oprah.” Those books were easier to pull than a vaguely described book with a red cover or the author’s name that began with the letter F. We became detectives asking specific questions to help narrow the search. Fiction or nonfiction? New or old? True crime? History? Self-help? Bio? We pushed our luck asking for an ISBN. Instead of going on a wild goose chase, we’d point the customer in the direction of the section, usually fiction, the book might be and hope that browsing the shelves would jog their memory. Some would take one look at the intimidating Fiction/Literature section that snaked across the back wall and say they’d come back with more information; others willingly attacked the challenge. I was genuinely happy for them when they were successful.
There was an eerie calm before the storm feeling before the store opened in the morning. The empty place felt larger. That’s when we had staff meetings to discuss the latest top sellers. Tuesday was CD and DVD release day. The manager leading the meeting would usually inform us of the latest return/exchange scam, like using the bookstore as a library. There was one customer that thanks to her receipt, we could tell she was purchasing and returning a series of expensive computer programming books. She had exchanged the third book for the fourth, but was back exchanging it for the fifth. The meetings ended with a pep talk thanking us for our hard work. We stopped short of forming a huddle and yelling “Go team!”
The staff did have a team feeling. Employee turnover was high; few of us were veterans. We covered each other’s shifts or breaks, and bailed each other out with difficult customers or helped search the sales floor and back room for hard to find stock that the info desk computer insisted we had. The missing book or CD could easily be in a display, on a table in the café or on the shelves on hold for another customer. Depending on my mood and the customer’s attitude when he or she asked me to check the back stock room, I might actually dig through the bins or spend a few minutes chatting with Greg the Shipment Receiver in the freezing backroom before heading back to the sales floor.
I don’t remember how or when it happened, but I got sucked into a clique of three guys who attended Berklee College of Music, were in a band together and worked on the music side of the store. We were all in our early twenties. Another female co-worker on the book side named Byrdie completed our clique.
Borders provided the college experience that Babson was not. I was lucky that my randomly assigned roommate Leyla and I not only got along, but became friends, but she had more in common with the predominantly rich and white student body than with me or that I had with the student body. I thought she was kidding when she asked, “What’s financial aid?” One student was known to have two cars on campus: an SUV and a sedan. Once before class, I heard a classmate ask another, “Do you want to go to Paris for the weekend?” Scared to wipe out my hard earned savings from two summer jobs, I had to carefully budget and sometimes scrounge for train fare home to Boston.
Breaks, shelving, info desk and cash register duty were all penciled into the schedule by the managers. Doc, had a towering presence and liked to shout. Karen, the manager who accepted my application, was short and had a bubbly laugh; Jeff, the music manager, had an affinity for South Park and often mimicked the character voices. Joanne somehow managed to work in that she was a recovering alcoholic or lesbian into nearly every conversation with employees and customers. Finally there was Steve, the General Manager, who seemed to have OCD. He hated when the stacked books on the display tables “looked like the New York City skyline.” To this day, I straighten and rearrange book stacks at bookstores when I’m shopping. I sometimes get mistaken for staff.
The store had lots of nooks and crannies for employees to take their breaks. I liked to take my break on the music side, the café, back room, but rarely the employee kitchen. Sometimes I took off my name tag and just sat on the floor of a section and pulled books from the shelves to browse. “I’ll be in Erotica if you need me.” I wasn’t interested in purchasing any of those titles, but they were fascinating to flip through. Back then, I mostly bought and read authors found in the African-American fiction section: Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, Carl Weber, and Terry McMillan. I also read books I discovered while shelving or tidying up the store. Otherwise I never would have read Chang and Eng, a book about Siamese twins, one an alcoholic. I usually run from science but was drawn to reading about mutant frogs with multiple legs because of pollution. I stubbornly refused to read bestsellers like The Red Tent, Gun, Germs and Steel, ‘Tis, All Souls and anything by James Patterson (who I loved in high school) and John Grisham. I’ve still never read any of the Potter books. Some bestsellers I couldn’t resist, like Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers or the Oprah Book Club selection The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I remember telling an excited customer that a rape scene in The Bluest Eye might be a little too graphic for her ten-year-old daughter.
When I left Babson sophomore year, after taking a semester off, I gave up the dream of owning and running my own bookstore. My family wasn’t thrilled that I was walking away from a scholarship, encouraged me to stick it out, but eventually supported my decision to figure out and follow my bliss. Babson being strictly a business school didn’t allow me to switch to a liberal arts major. I became a full-time employee at Borders, with plans to enroll at Umass Boston, and begrudgingly moved back into my aunt’s house. I tried to get along with her and made myself scarce, but I felt unwelcome in her home. To stay out of the house and to earn extra money, I requested more Sunday shifts which meant time and a half pay. I volunteered for double shifts or to cover people’s days off to get overtime pay.
I didn’t know Adam, the Book Special Orders Clerk (Book SPO), was planning to leave to tour with his band when he asked me if I’d like his position. Having a desk job in the back office was definitely more attractive than eight or more hour shifts on the sales floor. He warned me not to get excited because the final decision wasn’t his, but he did a good job pitching the idea to the managers. I never applied or interviewed for the position, but soon I was being trained to be the new Book SPO and back-up Music SPO. Again, I was amazed to peel back another layer of the unknown bookstore world.
I was responsible for placing orders for customer requests and bookstore events—booked by the Event Coordinator—like book clubs, author readings and children’s book character appearances. (The costumes were worn by a Borders employee, who was compensated with a Borders gift certificate.) I was disappointed that no high profile authors came to our store. Those visits were saved for the Downtown Boston location. I loved the position. I felt like a star employee. I was inducted into the National Honor Society in high school, but had never even made Dean’s List at Babson.
Mail, books and ARCs (advanced readers copies) were addressed to me, which allowed me to expand my book collection and reading experience while also collecting books and ARCs left in the store kitchen for all employees. I was bumped to $9 an hour and convinced the managers to let me keep Sundays and work only four weekdays. I moved out of my aunt’s house into my first apartment. My roommates were Andy and Dan, from the music side of the store, and my friend Emily from Babson, but she spend most time on campus. My aunt congratulated me by re-gifting back to me a CD alarm clock, the Christmas gift I had bought her, and my baby picture.
Working in the back, I missed being with my friends on the sales floor, even though we were friends outside of work. “T”, “C” and “C’s” brother A (who had left Borders before I started then came back) shared an apartment and I sometimes gave them a ride home after work. Even if my shift was over before theirs, I’d linger in the store. The managers didn’t mind because I’d still help with customers or tidy up the sales floor off the clock.
Most of the time, we hung out at Byrdie’s place, a rented house she shared with her boyfriend, another couple and two other friends. Other times the Borders crew hung out at the guys’ apartment. My apartment was too far out. They only came when I had my housewarming. We never did things like go to the movies or eat at a restaurant. We’d stay in, order pizza or cook, get drinks, listen to music and have a movie playing on mute in the background. The Princess Bride was a group favorite, although I didn’t understand why. All this was going on while there were multiple rotations of weed. I never smoked, but I’d pass the homemade plastic soda bottle bong along to the next person. There was an abundance of alcohol and other stuff that I didn’t indulge in. I was just happy to be there.
My crush on “C” snuck up on me. He was the palest white boy I had ever seen, with a deep M for a hairline. He had gorgeous blue eyes and sandy brown hair. He didn’t have a moustache but wore a goatee. I suspect I fell in love, or deep like, with “C” because he paid attention to me. He always made sure to come to the book side of the store or back room to say hi, he saved R&B promo CDs for me and we often split chocolate chip cookies from the café. Once after giving him a ride to nearby CVS to buy cigarettes, he handed me a pen with a feather as a “just because” gift. I still have the pen.
After I made an off-hand comment about boys not being able to cook, he invited me over to his place. When I arrived at his apartment, it was candlelit and R&B music, my favorite, was playing. I got excited about my first romantic dinner until I heard the key in the door and Andrew walked in. He nonchalantly grabbed a plate and joined us at the table. I got over my disappointment when the conversation turned to music and books. They were horrified I’d never heard of Jill Scott, the singer on the CD playing. “C” immediately got up to retrieve the CD case so I could read the track listing and liner notes. Who is Jill Scott? Volume 1 was Jill Scott’s recently released debut album. Ten years later I own all her CDs and have seen her in concert.
“C” also introduced me to other types of artists like Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, but he often invited me to his own band’s gigs. He was the singer. I still don’t know how to describe their music. Byrdie and I went to a lot of their gigs.
My cousins teased me about how often I managed to work “C” into our conversations. They were shocked to finally meet him at the housewarming for my first apartment. He was the complete opposite of my ex, who was big, bald and black, in other words, my type. They encouraged me to share my feelings with him. I finally went for it while driving him home one night. He could tell something was wrong by the way I clutched the steering wheel.
He asked me what was wrong and when I said I had something to tell him, his joke about it not being his fell flat. I rambled on for a while, finally ending with “I have feelings for you and want to be more than friends.” By this time we were in front of his building. We faced each other in my Toyota Corolla barely able to see each other in the near darkness.
I was stunned into silence as I caught a few words of my humiliating rejection. He told me he was flattered, thought I was fantastic (one of his favorite words), one of his favorite people, then ended with the news of having a girlfriend. After answering the questions I managed to stutter out, like did he love her, and why was she never around, he kissed me on the cheek and walked upstairs.”
Byrdie was as shocked as I was when I told her the news. I told her how I managed to keep it together while “C” explained that he had an on and off again girlfriend whom we never met because she traveled a lot for her job. She had never been at any of the dozen or so shows we had attended. Shortly after that night, his dark-haired and slightly older girlfriend showed up to one gig, keeping her distance from me and Byrdie. We never saw her again. He also casually dropped “my girlfriend” into anecdotes while Byrdie and I rolled our eyes. Byrdie admitted that if she weren’t in a relationship, she probably would’ve made a play for him.
Seasonal and rotating hires often asked “C’s” relationship status so I didn’t feel bad for falling under his spell. This was a bigger displeasure than when I found out Tony was dating another female employee. I had always thought he was cute, but that was it. Still, it caught me by surprise to see that he was dating someone. Somehow things weren’t awkward between “C” and me. When he told me he and his girlfriend had broken up for good, I didn’t care. The desire for a relationship had passed.
I ran up and down the aisle of the medical section of the bookstore when Byrdie asked me to be a bridesmaid. I had been one as child, but it was the first time I’d be one as an adult. Years later, I’d also walk in Leyla’s wedding. I felt honored to be asked. Byrdie’s wedding was the same day as one of my closest cousin’s college graduation. I wrote him a letter explaining I was choosing her wedding over his graduation because it would be too painful to watch him graduate and remind me of my shame. We were the same age and up until then had been on the same academic tract. He gave me his blessing, I imagine with reluctance.
Byrdie’s only bridesmaid requirement was to wear a black dress. She didn’t specify length or style. A few days before the wedding I packed the dress I had bought on clearance at Macy’s and piled into her roommate Doris or Dolores’ Volkswagen to head to Ohio. “C” was also in the car. Byrdie was married by her gay pastor friend. During the ceremony, “C”, wearing a kilt, played the guitar while Doris or Dolores sang a Tracy Chapman song. By the glassy look in my eyes in the wedding photos, I can tell I got tipsy at the reception. A wedding photo of me with a pixie haircut and “C” with his goatee, both of us smiling cheek to cheek is part of a collage in my living room.
The wedding photos, candid pictures and pictures from Byrdie’s Halloween party where I dressed as a pimp in all leather and an afro wig, along with fuzzy memories are all that’s left of those times. I worked at Borders for three years before leaving for an Assistant Manager position at Waldenbooks Brentanos. Like my Book SPO position, I was handpicked and didn’t have to apply or interview. Greg, Borders’ former shipment receiver, was the manager and wanted me to join his team. The store was up the street, less than five minutes away. The Borders clique stayed in touch and sometimes hung out, but after I began dating an associate at Brentanos, I was consumed by first time reciprocated love.
Before our relationship completely fizzled, I was part of a support system to Byrdie as her marriage fell apart. I cheered her on as she began a new relationship. They eloped shortly after moving to Chicago. She sent me a card with a photo of the two of them smiling. I visited them once. T, “C”, Byrdie and I are all Facebook friends. Facebook is how I the guys are in their own marriages. “C” has a young daughter. Byrdie recently mailed me pictures of her adorable kids. Before that I watched the progress of her pregnancies and the kids’ growth through her posts.
My time at Borders filled the void of missing being a student. The fun I expected to have being a college student, happened as a Borders employee. Once, I bought and wore an electric blue wig to work much to the amusement of my co-workers and customers. After leaving Babson, I attended two more colleges. I had first day nerves at both schools, but the excitement of being a college student never returned. The love to learn did, though. More than ten years after leaving Babson, I earned my undergraduate degree in writing, literature and publishing from Emerson College. After leaving Brentanos, I worked at another bookstore part-time to supplement my full-time income from a book publisher. Neither store ever came close to duplicating my experiences at Borders, neither did the schools.
I was devastated when Borders went out of business. I felt like a traitor when for the first time ever, I shopped at Barnes and Noble. Being an invisible wallflower in high school, I hoped and wished things would be different in college. Working at Borders was the realization of that college dream.
*Green Day, Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)