In 1992 I went to work for Borders Books. It was intended to be “just a job” till I finished my PhD. I ended up working there for ten great years.
While reading Sven Birkert’s book The Gutenberg Elegies, I came across his description of his own time with Borders and it resonated with me. I share an excerpt below.
“I handed in applications at several bookstores, and I was asked in for an interview at one the very next day. Borders Book Shop was a new business in town, run by two young brothers from Kentucky. They had burst through one storefront and were opening in a larger place on State Street. They recognized me as a browser–perhaps they saw the fixated look of the addict–and I was hired. What ecstasy! I walked home in the hot afternoon sun grinning at the sidewalk and wishing I had someone to celebrate with.
“…Borders was all hustle and crackling fluorescents. The brothers kept the staff in motion all day long, unpacking boxes, stocking shelves, sorting backstock, and working the cash registers. We were expected to know titles and references. And, although my years of obsessive browsing helped some, I was once again face to face with my ignorance.
“My whole relation to books was changed again. All contemplative distance was shattered. I was not there to thumb through offbeat volumes–I was stacking and sorting the brand-new stuff. Everything was glossy and crisp. And, I thought, cutting-edge. I felt as if everyone were just waking up to books as I was. Suddenly there were thousands of serious readers in town. They thronged the aisles of the store, asked questions, placed orders. The books had an aura, an excitement about them. And just moving the titles back and forth, getting them onto the shelves and into the hands of customers was an education. For the first time I caught a sense of what a genuine intellectual life might be like. This was a sense I had never had in college, no matter how challenging a given course may have been. That was packaged thought, with everything already subjected to institutional dry-cleaning. This was different; this was hands-on. I saw my role as quasi-priestly: I was channeling the nourishing word to the people who wanted it most. I had to feel that because, otherwise, I was just putting in time at a low-paying retail job, not at all ministering to the life of the culture or moving along a worthy career path.”
~ Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (NY: Fawcett, 1994), page 51.
Borders closed its doors in 2011, due largely to changes in the book industry. I miss being able to go to one of the Borders stores to browse its deep inventory shelves, but I often return to the fond memories of the years that I spent there.