Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Without Borders

It was 1994 when I moved from Alaska to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend college. I was 18 years old, and I was scared shitless.

Quite a leap, moving from the small Alaskan town of Eagle River to a giant university so large, that you had to take a bus to get from North Campus, where I lived, to Central Campus and the rest of the school. Ann Arbor wasn’t just a college town; the college was the town, and I had to figure out how to conquer this behemoth by myself.

My mother came with me, which was both wonderful and horrible at the same time, because I was eighteen years old, hungry for independence, but terrified of being on my own. When we arrived at my dorm, cars lined the street in front of the door, belongings and furniture spilling out of every window and trunk, and new students and parents bustled about, unpacking, moving things around, figuring out where this lamp should go and whether the rug should go in front of the door or in the middle of the floor. I had almost nothing, save one large suitcase stuffed to near-bursting with everything I owned that would fit. No furniture for me. We flew eight hours to get to our final destination, so all incidental shopping had to be done upon arrival.

Tired, jet-lagged and most likely arguing, my mother and I explored Central Campus together. My face burned bright red when I spotted a store devoted entirely to condoms and condom-related items on the street where we walked. Head shops abounded. Record stores were everywhere. I was elated at the prospect of living in that environment, but I felt so awkward, so uninformed. I did not know what lay ahead.

My mom and I bid each other a tearful good-bye when she flew back to Alaska when classes officially started, but I had managed to make friends with my hallmates in my co-ed dorm, so I wasn’t quite as deer-in-the-headlights petrified as I was when I arrived just a few days before. I also quickly figured out how to get around the sprawling campus using the bus system, so I spent a lot of time exploring, walking around, going in stores and fondling merchandise that I could not afford. Once, while on an excursion, I stumbled upon a huge bookstore on East Liberty Street. It was called Borders Books and Music. I excitedly went in, and when I realized that I could sit. In the store. And read books without buying them! Like a library but with much more comfortable chairs!! I breathed a sigh of relief. I was home.

I spent countless hours in that store while I was in school, even though it was far from my dorm and the University’s music conservatory. I’ve always felt comfortable in book stores. When I’m in an unfamiliar place, I seek them out. They are familiar in a preternatural way, as if I was a bookbinder in a former life, or one of those guys that held the torches up so some much more talented scribe could write something. Or maybe I cleaned Shakespeare’s chamber pot, I’m not sure. Either way, I adore books and places they reside.

Although Borders was already in the full swing of franchising when I moved to Ann Arbor, the Borders on East Liberty didn’t have that sterile, soulless retail feeling that I get when I walk into my local Barnes & Noble in Kingston, New York. Every employee at the East Liberty Borders knew EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW about the section in which they worked. The periodicals guy could tell you what was on the cover of the Life magazine that came out in September, 1947. The food/cookbook section lady could tell you six different ways to prepare quince, and which book had the best recipes for emu eggs. And don’t even get me started on the music section employees. Those dudes were scary when they dropped music knowledge on you. If you went in there and asked questions, it was best if you just got comfortable, opened your brain and let the esoteric knowledge of every genre of music pour in. They probably played that music, too, when they weren’t working and fighting with each other over which album to play over the P.A. system in the store (which could be whatever they wanted; no corporate suits around to tell them what they could or couldn’t put on).

Madeline’s father, Crispin, worked at Borders stores all over the country. When we picked up and moved to San Francisco on a whim, he immediately found employment at the store in Union Square, where he got Nancy Cartwright to sign his Bart Simpson doll, and told Chuck Palahniuk to write me a note because he knew how much I loved/hated/loved again Chuck’s work (by the way, Chuck’s a weird dude. Not sure if you’re surprised by that).

The Borders in Union Square was also the first call I made when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, Madeline. It was the first place I went after discovering my high-rise office building was closed on the morning of September 11, 2001. Most of my daughter’s book collection came from the children section of that store, books that were recommended to me by a very knowledgeable children’s book section employee, naturally.

We moved back to Ann Arbor right before Madeline was born, and once again, Borders became our bread and butter. The pay was shit at the East Liberty Street Borders, but I couldn’t get hired by a temp agency while I was nine months pregnant, so we had to suffer on that pittance Crispin was paid working there. I still remember driving there, in the dead of winter, to pick him up when the store closed at 11pm in our unreliable Volvo station wagon. My stomach was so large, I had to move the seat back to the point where my feet almost couldn’t touch the peddles, just to reach the steering wheel.

The day before Madeline was born, I was a week overdue. That morning, I laid on my side in bed while Leave It to Beaver played on my television, sobbing uncontrollably because I hadn’t slept in weeks, every part of my body hurting, and I felt no closer to labor than I did on her official, midwife given due date. In order to make myself feel better, I got up and applied makeup for the first time in at least a month, and drove myself to the East Liberty Borders. Crispin told me that Anthony Bourdain was doing a signing there. I loved Anthony Bourdain, and I was promised a private audience with him before his book signing started.

We had a lovely chat, and he signed my copy of “A Cook’s Tour” with dripping butcher’s knife under his name. And he smelled nice, too, not at all like stale cigarettes, old beer and fried chicken, the way I had always imagined. I sipped hot chocolate while he read from his book before his signing. Madeline did backflips the whole time, but I didn’t know she was a Madeline. We didn’t know if she was a boy or a girl. Roughly 40 hours later, we found out.

The first place we took Madeline upon her arrival to the planet was the East Liberty Borders. All of the employees came over to her stroller and oo’d and ah’d. They cooed and giggled at her and tickled her little fat cheeks. Those first few weeks were rough. Madeline’s father continued to work a late shift, and I was alone with a screaming baby who cried 24/7. And we were broke. We were always one paycheck away from homelessness. Thank god for WIC, or we wouldn’t even have had peanut butter and eggs in the refrigerator box we were *this close* to calling home.

With Madeline barely out of the womb, I took at job at the East Liberty Borders in their café, working from 6pm to midnight. Crispin managed to change his shift so that he could come home in time to catch the baby that I punted to him on my way out the door to my own shift at Borders, where I made expensive espresso drinks we could never afford to drink and reheating giant pretzels and fancy sandwiches we could never afford to eat. I liked it there, though. It was comfortable and familiar, and my supervisor was almost never around. Deep into my first shift, around 10:30pm, while bussing tables and schlepping bins of plates and cups, and I looked down and noticed that the front of my shirt was completely soaked with breast milk. From that night on, I brought a bottle or two with me to my shift so that I could sneak into the bathroom or the back storage area of the café and make sure such unfortunate mishaps never happened again. Meanwhile, back at home, Madeline was on a hunger strike, refusing to eat any of that expressed milk that I had stored for her, instead choosing to wait until I was home, sweaty, exhausted and covered in coffee grounds before she had dinner. I feel sad sometimes when I listen to my stay-at-home-mom friends talk about what it’s like to spend so much time with their children when they were small. My heart breaks a little, because I never had that, and I never will. But my working kept a roof over our heads, and that was more important.

In 2003, Madeline’s father took a job opening a new Borders store in Poughkeepsie, New York. We would be close to his family, closer to the help we didn’t have in Michigan. Crispin abandoned that job quickly, with almost no notice, and that was the end of our fiduciary dependence on the Borders Corporation. But we still went there, all the time, especially when we were broke, which was almost always. Because Madeline and I could sit. In the store. And read books without buying them! Like a library but with much more comfortable chairs!!

The Borders store at Union Square in San Francisco closed its doors in February of this year. The flagship store on East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor will be closing soon, too. It was only a matter of time. The once-booming company fell prey Amazon.com, then to electronic books available on Nook and Kindle, and stores like Wal-Mart and Target didn’t help, either. There, people could brainlessly buy whatever books Oprah was telling them to buy that week without thinking or needing to ask a knowledgeable employee whose love of books was evident in every word they said.

I’m scared of what’s going to happen to those employees, the ones that knew everything about everything. Where will they go? What will they do? I hope they open their own bookstores, where people can sit in the store and read books, like a library but with much more comfortable chairs. And if I’m ever in a jam, I hope they hire me to run their café’s espresso machine. Or Madeline, if she needs a job when she’s older. She can stock shelves and talk books. It’s in her blood.

1 comment:

  1. This was awesome.

    I worked for a Borders in Atlanta for several years after the extraordinary Oxford Books closed down and left me jobless. Made good friends with whom I still keep in touch, and I continued to be amazed by how many brilliant employees a bookstore attracts -- out-of-work scientists, graduate students, a Cordon Bleu chef, etc. -- all using their doctoral degrees and encyclopedic knowledge to reference and recommend just the right volume for the Customer Of The Moment.

    My best friend, having seen the writing on the wall, left his management position at the Borders Union Square several months before the hammer dropped on them, going to work for Books Ink not too far away. I haven't been back to SF since they closed the doors, but it's hard to imagine that huge space empty, the escalators stationary, the walls all bare. Such a shame.