Sunday, February 29, 2004

OBITUARY: 01/07/04

Borders Bibliophiles, the reading group I started at Borders in Boca Raton about six years ago, has been summarily killed. One week prior to the January meeting, a terrific discussion of Montana 1948 by Larry Watson attended by a dozen people, I was informed that Borders no longer was interested in hosting the reading group.

As usual with Borders management, they don't see the forest for the trees. The new general manager claimed that Borders could no longer afford to pay for the approximately three hours per week of payroll that it cost them. Despite the fact that the store usually sold 25-50 copies of each title we selected. Despite the fact that the people who attended every month generally purchased an additional 2-3 recommended books each after every meeting. Despite the fact that many other reading groups in the area eagerly anticipated seeing our new titles for their own reading groups. I may not be a math major, but even I can add up those numbers and see profit.

Reading groups give bookstores a certain caché. Borders has been seeking to disassociate itself from that since the change in corporate management swung to the former CEO of Jewel Osco, a supermarket chain. That big box retail mentality has turned Borders, which once proudly claimed to be "a collection of unique bookstores" into a large retail establishment that oh, yeah, sells books. The mantra at the daily sales meetings has been "You don't have to read to sell books." Borders has turned into just another Barnes & Noble wannabe, which is about as far from the "unique bookstore" concept as Mars is from Earth. But in my neighborhood at least, B&N understands that bookstores are more than just superstores that sell books rather than linens or toys or computers. B&N has made themselves a part of the community, offering several reading groups, children's events and author signings each month, while Borders has reduced their community involvement to a weekly 15 minute story time for kids and a rare author appearance.

Most people don't notice that there are 30% fewer bookcases in the Boca Raton store than there were two years ago, but they do notice that Borders no longer carries the school reading books that are assigned every fall. They do notice that any book that is the least bit out of the mainstream must be special ordered with a wait of several weeks. They do notice that there are fewer and fewer booksellers available and those that are have an appalling lack of knowledge about the product they are selling, and there are no music sellers at all. The stockholders notice that music sales keep slipping every quarter, but management doesn't see the correlation between those last two facts. Management has seen the sales of this particular store drop by more than 50% in the past few years. They blame it on B&N, they blame it on the economy, but they never look at themselves and the changes they've wrought.

I have been mourning the loss of the Borders I went to work for back in 1996 for a couple of years now. Those first few years I had the most fun I've ever had at a job. The money always sucked, but no one was working there for the money. The employees were a group of quirky individuals who had a common bond; we worked there because we loved books and music, and we loved sharing that with the community. And our sales reflected that.

I knew that the reading group should have been put in hospice when the new general manager came in. But like most people who are faced with a death, I was in denial, so it was a shock to be told in a casual, cavalier manner that by the way, after seven years with this company, my services were no longer required. After the fact, it was almost a relief - it had become somewhat painful for me to be in that store every month, seeing the changes, and knowing what it had been, knowing what it could be, and seeing it for what it had become.

On a brighter note, the members of the Borders Bibliophiles have come together and have no intention of letting the group be buried. We have arisen from the ashes, and are now the Boca Bibliophiles. Next month we will be meeting at the library, with members offering their homes and community centers for future meetings. So I'm happy to say that the report of the demise of the Bibliophiles has been slightly exaggerated. By me. But this is my site, and my vent, and I thank you all for bearing with me.

Rest in peace.

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