Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Big Box goes under: Goodbye Border's Monroeville

Border's Books and Music made a splash in the retail (and Zombie) mecha of Monroeville, PA in the mid 90's when it introduced it's all-in-one formula of media for sale, cafe, and live music/ gathering place. In it's time it was a solid enough concept to force the retreat of all local independent bookstores, and even the non-affiliated mall book stores.

Times have changed.

Border's stood out against the urban sprawl of big box retail by enlisting the aid of the local community in it's public outreach and programming efforts. Giving the knitting club a few tables in the cafe on one evening, and presenting a performance by the singer songwriter duo the next had a transformative effect on the stores environment. It became a center of activity whereby local intellectuals, weirdos, and average joes could meet and exchange ideas. Having a cafe didn't hurt either, and meeting someone new at Border's could turn into several hours of conversation over coffee before you knew it. Border's became so ingrained in the local culture that it's not uncommon to learn your friends were bumming around the store on the same weekends you were, years before you met them.

What happened? No doubt, electronic media happened, but that's not all. Barnes and Noble swayed some of the Border's crowd with it's newness, proximity to the mall (I guess,) and actual Starbucks Coffee. Half-Priced Books certainly flanked the aging juggernaut with stacks upon stacks of remainders and genuine rarities. Two opposing forces crushed the once retail giant in it's moment of vulnerability. Amusingly, a parade of former Border's employees can now be found working at either competitor.

As for the Border's employees who stuck around til the end? Screwed. Cast aside along with brick and morter and inventory, and under thralldom to the third party liquidator. Benefits stripped, salaries cut, seniority tossed out the window, not even the other local Border's locations acknowledged these poor souls. Helpful to the last, they cheerily waved on anyone setting off the sensor tag alarm. "That's okay! Don't worry!" You could sense the resentment.

Soul Boy, a store fixture, clears a store fixture

Border's Books and Music was also a personal experience, as I worked there part-time for two years. It was the end of an era, when a young(ish) bohemian with no clear intentions could work 18 hours an week and still afford a cheap apartment. There was an energy level, a camaraderie, and an ever present potential for romance that made the place worth being at, even during Christmas. Escaping to the break room my first holiday season was a revelation of microwavable meals and piles of printed materials. Filing books and cds was something I was born to do, or so I had thought.

The following year it became obvious that we had existed inside a bubble. New management brought new strategies, including smaller staff, disgruntled secret shoppers, and higher prices. Border's had a great selection of music, but it was always over-priced. After a frazzled friday night during the holiday rush I was advised that I should be able to roll a coin across the books as they were displayed on the table. That would be my last night, although several weeks later I did get called about coming in for a few extra hours. I've often wondered what would have happened if I showed up. Were they even aware that I hadn't been reporting to work? It seemed that the management was on auto pilot, and as with all big box stores, there wasn't enough help available to the customers. I quit, but I still popped in from time to time, just as I did before. Like I said, the place was a community focal point.

In the clearance sale's final days I could not bring myself to lift a bunch of stuff and set off the alarm. I did manage to snap of few shots of the sad, last gasp of what should have been a prouder legacy. Even in the weeks following the closing, while parked in the lot contemplating this eulogy, I witnessed the stores continuos impact by way of the several vehicles pulling up to a spot like nothing was wrong, each driver taking turns arriving at and walking dejectedly away from it's shuttered doors. It made me sad. The place was good, in an anachronistic sort of way; like, as the evil corporate entity that inadvertently did some good. For a while.

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