It was Border's flagship store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. It opened in 1994, the fifty-eighth store in the then-growing chain. Four floors and eight million dollars worth of books, stationary, CDs, DVDs, and children's toys made it the biggest bookstore in Chicago. For a period in the late 90's, its newsstand was recognized as the largest in the world with annual periodical sales of well over a million dollars. Thirty-thousand people passed its front doors every hour on a good Saturday afternoon. Customers sat in the second floor café, sipped coffee, read, and took in the vista of the Water Tower directly across the street from them. Past and future presidents, celebrity authors, and literary giants appeared in its third floor event space. But even before all this melted in the economic gloom of 2008, internet downloading made CDs and DVDs irrelevant, Amazon.com grew into the single biggest bookseller on the planet, and the store ceased to make a profit. The first death knell rang in September of 2009, the store's lease was up and a new proposal was rejected by corporate. The store was scheduled to close in January 2010, but as the final seconds ticked, the building management blinked and the old lease was extended for one more year.
I started at the store in April of 2006 as part of the overnight crew, eight people plus a supervisor. We shelved the hundreds of books that arrived on five to six pallets every weekday. The store was in its last gasp of greatness, stocked and staffed to the max. By 2008 our inventory and the overnight crew were cut in half. In September 2010 the building owners didn't offer Borders a lease renewal, signing Top Shop, a hip clothing boutique from London, to take its place. There would be no last minute miracles. Death would be sure and certain, the last day was scheduled for January 7th, 2011. These are moments from its final months.
A Really Big Toe
Concerned for his toe, he has lately been looking at medical books to find an explanation of sesamoiditis. He repeats the term and then writes it down on a corner of the bag he is carrying and shows it to me to make sure I get it. The doctor told him they would have to remove his toenail, excise dead tissue, and wrap the remaining skin over the stump. He doesn't have anyone else to tell, so he tells me. He is here most nights until closing, his eyes reflecting a thousand nights of late Sunday loneliness. He walks from shelf to shelf like he is walking the way of the cross with a small shopping bag of sundries. He tells me all this as we are closing and he knows he has to leave, an old man hobbled by a bad toe limping through a city that has little regard for toes. It is the last time I see him.
Fern Walking Backwards
Fern, dressed in homeless layers, stops to tell me the woman's room was messed up but I took a little time to clean it and confessed that she went into the men's bathroom to get some soap because there wasn't any in the women's room and men never wash their hands. She made sure it was empty before she went in. She reads paranormal magazines and takes them to the registers to put on hold. When she doesn't show up, she calls to say she can't make it in and could we hold her magazines for one more day. We say yes and put them away. She is always among the last to leave. I hold the door for her as she talks about her magazines. She turns and begins walking backwards east on Pearson keeping to the middle of the sidewalk never turning, trusting the god who keeps half an eye on her.
The video shows a man entering the Pearson door carrying a plastic grocery bag. He proceeds to the lower level washroom. There is no video of him as he takes the two pink deodorant cakes from the urinals and secures himself in the handicapped stall. There he removes a frozen chicken from the bag and proceeds to stuff bird and deodorant cakes into the commode, flushes, and leaves. All this discovered after a customer complains about the condition of the men's room. No one on the staff recognizes him and he is never seen again.
A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma
She is looking for the dinosaur coloring book, the one with three miniature plastic models attached to the cover, and the Monet hardcover bargain book that sold out weeks ago. She is Russian and speaks in broken phrases. The books are either for her daughter's birthday, granddaughter's birthday, or both. She wants to ship the books to New Jersey. She shows me a birthday card with roses on the front and opens it to neat block Cyrillic script. She begins to cry when I find the dinosaur book, but tell her that Monet is gone. This woman, who played at Uncle Joe's knee, communicates that she saw the Monet book at a sister store, maybe Uptown, I can't be sure. She wants me to get Monet from the other store and ship both books tomorrow, pleading as if from a Turgenev story, but I can only provide a Karenina conclusion. Her eyes accept the fate I hand her. She pulls a book from her purse, a naked cartoon man and woman dance on the cover between Slavic words. She winks and asks if I know what kind of book it is, a "sex book" she says and wants to show me the pages inside. Is this for her daughter, her granddaughter? The gift to be an unavailable Monet, a dinosaur coloring book with three plastic figures and Slavic sex. I pass on perusing Slavic sex. She buys the dinosaur book, making sad sounds with her tongue.
Before the closing is publicly announced, for the first time in many years, with staff cut to the bone, the store has been profitable. But this is based on the old lease, no amount of staff cuts could make up the difference in a new lease.
We have been eliminated from the store locator on the company's website and an e-mail was sent to customers announcing the closing. Seeing this in print unsettles my stomach and quickens my pulse. The new closing discounts triple sales almost overnight with growing register lines.
A well-dressed matron walks up to my register. She has 13 CDs, mostly Shostakovich and Wagner - I want to comment on Stalin's treatment of Shostakovich but hold my tongue. I am called away to answer the phone - Bob finishes ringing her up - the seemingly sweet woman becomes outraged when Bob doesn't touch her CDs with what she deems the proper amount of respect. She calls him a Nazi - says the store deserves to close - Bob tells me this when I return - "Gold Coast" he whispers - and I understand - "But she didn't look Gold Coast," I reply, tricked by her love of Shostakovich and lack of fur.
He looks like the guy who made the donuts, squeezed the Charmin, the guy who can't believe he ate the whole thing. He looks like all those guys rolled into one composite character wearing a fedora. He never leaves the store until asked and then he always protests, I'm building library. He puts books on hold every night for his library, but never buys them. It's an hour after the store has closed and I see him in a heated discussion with the Chicago Avenue red line attendant. He is carrying bags filled with more bags and apparently his CTA pass didn't work. His life one long, unending debate.
All Sales Are Final
Yellow and black bold-lettered "Store Closing" and "Final Sale" signs are spaced three feet apart over the shelves. They cover the windows facing Michigan Avenue and Pearson Street, yet people stop me constantly and ask "Are you really closing?" as if this were some sort of ploy - "Yes, we are closing," I repeat to mini-queues that surround me. "We'll write letters, send e-mails," they say. I tell them not to waste their time. They want the same service and selection, they want me to order books for them that they could easily order on-line from home or office. They descend upon the store like a locust swarm tearing apart shelf after shelf. The check-out line lengthens, people get upset, nobody wants to wait. People lash out at the cashiers for the time they waited in line, they study their receipts for errors and erupt when they think they find one. Our legs cramp and backs ache, we rejoice at the end of the line and quickly lock the doors to rid the store of the incessant hum of their wings.
I Stand Alone
At night, sometimes I'm on the same trains with cashiers and booksellers going home - I have found it is best to separate myself from them - they need to relax and I have to remember that I'm their boss - so I say good night, move further down the platform out of earshot, so they can talk without being self-conscious - and forget the unending snake of a line winding through their thoughts.
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas
A regular customer with a head tilted at a 30 degree angle looks a bit like Burl Ives with a matching white goatee. Tonight he had a Jobim CD and in a mellifluous baritone voice spoke of the pure color of Jobim's sound. He is cursed to look at life sideways - a life that I wish I could straighten if only to look him in the eye and thank him for the soothing sound of his words in the midst of chaos.
My Kingdom for Some Ink
We have no Xerox machine, no stamps, and a surfeit of pens. Every shift I scavenge the office floor and crannies for pens only to lose them to a bookseller or customer shortly thereafter. We have boxes of staples but everyone keeps their stapler hidden so as not to lose it. Invoices are stacked 6" high and ripped cardboard packaging covers the floor. I battle the garbage to a draw on a daily basis, unable to advance, unwilling to retreat. The staff communicates through hand-held radios with broken antennae. The carpets are stained and dotted with black splotches of gum flattened and smooth as new asphalt.
Tiles are missing and cracked in the bathroom hallway - long pieces of trim have fallen, exposing chipped unpainted wallboard - the Pearson entrance is sticky with every kind of spill, the escalators between the first floor and lower level are frequently frozen in place - half-full cups of water, coffee, tea litter the shelves - customers take books and put them back anywhere they please.
Friday's total was $82,000, Saturday was $117,000, and Sunday $87,000, more than a week's total in three days.
The break room refrigerator serves as the unofficial communication board for employees. This is where people tape odd shapes of paper with parting messages containing cell phone numbers and email addresses. Tonight it is covered with good-byes, the silver-haired Bob O. among them, leaving me the oldest employee at the store - there are only five regulars left, everyone else is a new temporary employee.
Here are the unwritten rules for store behavior. You cannot sleep. You cannot emanate noxious body odors beyond a two foot personal radius. You cannot drink alcohol or be drunk or high. You cannot interact inappropriately with other customers or staff. You cannot steal. People have stolen over $200,000 a year each year that I have been here. The corporation calls this shrink. We are told to engage customers that we suspect of shoplifting, not confront, not stop them, but engage them and they will magically stop and leave.
Tonight the line was patient - nobody lashed out, everyone stayed cool - Burl Ives with bent head said it's going to be 64 tomorrow - he has been coming every night while others like Fern who- walks- backwards and Toe-man have abandoned us - maybe the crowds keep them away, and they miss the empty Nighthawks intimacy the store used to provide.
She doesn't want me to touch the books. She holds them one by one and has me scan them while standing as far back as possible. She doesn't want a bag because the bags are stored on a wooden shelf and she cannot touch wood. She says that she is allergic to wood and on specific instructions from her doctor. I wonder how she can touch a book since paper comes from pulp. She speaks with an Eastern European accent. Her husband stands ten paces behind her leaning on a cane. I am not sure if she is allergic to him, but note he maintains a constant distance from her. Another bookseller told me that she is also allergic to electricity which is why she stands so far back when her books are scanned. I follow her to hold open the door, but she shakes her head and says that she can only exit through revolving doors. She apologizes and says that she will be back tomorrow. I await her return.
The cold is welcome, gaunt trees shed their last bits of yellow, old leather gloves, double knit hats, women conversing in Polish on the train ease my anxiety. Nihilism is my antidote to the insanity of trying to fix any of this.
People begin to play a waiting game as they see the discounts increasing with time. Norman wants to buy some CDs but wonders when the next increase is coming. Tomorrow I say and since we are about to close and tomorrow is hours away I enter them at the higher discount, just because he's even-tempered and I know he's been a good customer over the years. We try to make more friends than enemies, keeping our heads above water like anxious cattle treading swift river crossings. Norman looks like Elaine's publishing boss on Seinfeld. He enjoys architecture books and the music of Bach and Bacharach. I treat him as well as he treats us. It is a pleasure to banter with him and the woman who looks like June Allyson. She buys whatever I suggest, her eyes always a bit lost with a half smile that makes me want to hug her. These are Gold Coast people too.
A customer phones and calls one of our cashiers a retard and then lashes out at the supervisor who took the call. She pages me to take the call, but he hangs up in the interim. I spend my time putting out one fire after another, working the floor, taking a few minutes to throw out the candy thief who complained to a cop of his mistreatment. Shoplifters test our limits daily, we are not supposed to confront them, but I do, rules be damned, the store is dying and in death there is clarity.
I see a man get on the elevator with a backpack and a book in his hand. I race upstairs in time to see him get off the elevator without a book in either hand. I follow him and he stops and asks me why. He raises his voice. I tell him what I saw. He becomes incensed and heads down the escalator and walks to the exit. The alarm goes off and he stops to open his backpack and show me that it is something he "bought" at Walgreens and rushes out before I can retrieve the stolen book. I admire his pluck.
Pellets of sleet mix with broken glass and gravel at the edge of the Pitney lot, it is Thanksgiving Eve. New graffiti on the Orange Line side of the Archer Avenue bridge reads: "Try harder chump."
Dead Man Walking
He comes in to use the bathroom and always leaves immediately to return to the steps of the old gothic high school at Rush and Pearson where he cadges for spare change some nights and other nights just asks for the time. He has been around ever since I started. Lately I have noticed ugly open sores covering his face and presumed he was jack-rolled for what little change he might have had. But this night he came and collapsed in the handicapped stall. His scabbed face struck the commode on the way down and blood covers the floor. A customer alerts the staff. An ambulance is called. The paramedics tell us he has skin cancer and our restroom is now a bio-hazard. His blood crusts into dark brown patches. It is the last time we see him. In the morning a special cleaning crew dons masks and gloves to clean the floor.
Working the register is the hardest job in the store. You always have to be up. You are constantly monitored and asked to do add- on sales and a number of other tasks with every transaction. When the line becomes long, the job becomes twice as difficult, especially during the lunch hour when people who dropped in to shop took too long and are in a rush to get back to work. The cashiers are all young and poised with names like Emily, Chelsea, Aidan and Brandon. Rachel went to four high schools. Brian is accomplished on the French horn. Anthony speaks fluent German, can joke in French, and studies Latin. They bring their energy every day and it rubs off on me and leaves me with a few crumbs of hope for the future.
Sweet Soul Music
Two black women walk in full of good spirit, they want the Best of Soul Train DVD - You can bet your last money it's all going to be a stone gas honey - I give them the line and they squeal. I call them girlfriend and they squeal some more because I know how to press their buttons and they like having them pressed. "You should have your own TV show," I say. "I'd call it Sistas." They squeal. "I could be the crazy white neighbor." They squeal again and I respond with, "Honey, please." I give them another girlfriend and drop a chocolate in each of their bags, a little caramel to match their honey brown skin.
Black Friday crowds push through the store like a weary Army on the move, it is nearly impossible to traverse the first floor in any direction, cops come when they get a report that a woman in fur was harassed by a member of PETA, but we find no evidence of her or PETA - the store is ravaged by thousands of hands - We are now out of George Bush, Wimpy Kid, Keith Richards, Cleopatra, Twain and The Great Gatsby - like a dying man, we no longer resemble the store we once were, three people are scheduled for tonight's recovery - we could us 30. Death is a messy fucking business.
The nicest people are from Michigan, Iowa, and South America, especially Brazilians who buy copious amounts of CDs, young white single women buying Giffin, Kinsella, Weinberg, or Charlene Harris, young black women buying Zane, teenaged females buying anything Stephanie Meyer squealing as they do so, and people in Santa hats who enjoy being in a crowd, waiting in lines, and chatting up sales clerks.
Reflections in a Golden Eye
The Red Line is half empty mid-afternoon and my hope is that the store will not be as busy, people having sated their need to shop over the past two days, but the crowd getting on at Lake Street predicts the same weary scenario of long lines and a bigger mess. People are more petulant when I arrive - they don't like waiting today. A woman approaches and asks if I'm the manager. "I wanted you to know that three of your employees just stood there doing nothing while I waited in line and when I finally made it to the register one of them said I could have gone downstairs to check out. This does not reflect well on Borders - You should manage your employees better - No this doesn't reflect well on Borders at all." I nod and reply, "I'll get right up there." But she walks away muttering once more, "This does not reflect well." I look around at the mess of coffee cups, bits of paper, books, magazines and cards left on the floor - candy wrappers and gum left on shelves, entire rolls of toilet paper tossed in the commode, bloody tampons lying on the women's room floor. This is what our customers have done today and I wonder whose reflection is worse?
Tonight I waited on a couple from Toledo, Spain - "I love Almodovar," I say. "Come to Spain," they say. A man from Belarus is happy to buy an atlas. Two men from Russia get a Sony E-reader thinking they got the deal of all deals - E-readers are hard to find and easy to sell for double or triple their value in Russia. "2,000 rubles," Alexandrov is his name and the broad expanse of the steppes is in his eyes. He doesn't want to pay tax, he is a diplomat and I ask the question I've been waiting a lifetime to speak: "papers please" and study them for a minute like a curious border guard, but he doesn't get it. He is too busy thinking about how much he money he is going to make reselling the Sony.
I'm called to the register - a man wants to return a digital picture frame without a receipt. I tell him we are not taking product back - especially without a receipt - he says he'll take a store credit. I offer the same size frame, different style, and he doesn't want it - first he tells me he doesn't want the frame because the person he bought it for has left the country, in the next breath he tells me he'll take a 10" frame and pay the difference - I get a 10" frame, I open the box, the frame is in good condition, as I'm entering the credit he stops me.
"And of course I will be able to return it if there's a problem."
This after I've told him three times everything is non-returnable and sold "as is", this after I've taken it out of the box to show him that the frame is flawless. I can see this man will never be happy. I void the credit and give him the original frame back.
"You should have listened more carefully. You can call our customer service number and appeal but I'm not taking it back." He says he that now he'll take the other frame I offered - too late I say - you really should have listened.
He calls corporate the next day. Corporate calls the district manager, the district manager calls the general manager, the general manager asks me what happened. The man returns two days later and gets a refund. He asks the general manager if she would like to have coffee with him.
Do the Math
She is my penultimate sale carrying two baskets overflowing with children's books. I have to tell her the price of every book after the discount before she decides to buy it, she continually stops me saying the price displayed is wrong and I keep telling her the discount doesn't show in the display. I give her two damaged board books. She doesn't bother saying thank-you, she is too busy watching the display, challenging every price.
"You have to trust me," I say. I throw in two opened bottles of hand lotion that we were going to toss and still she watches - I finally total and show her the receipt.
"Look, you saved $74.80."
"You gave me 30% off on one of the soap bottles not 40%," she responds.
"We can ring it up all over again." She sighs, mulling over the ten cents she would gain versus the time it would take to ring everything over again. She continues to study her bill as she leaves the store without another word.
Burl Ives with head at a 30 degree angle waits for me. He wants to discuss the history of Bossa Nova music. While I relish his soothing voice and command of language, it is ten past closing.
"Jobim never thanked Gilberto for his help," he starts. "He had the best poet in Brazil doing his lyrics, but he wouldn't acknowledge Gilberto's guitar. He was jealous."
"Every artist has their Achilles heel," I reply - It's cold and he's not dressed for it - I wonder who else he has to talk to about music. He continues. "Jobim would take his father's sax as a child and try to play it. The single greatest composer..." He's out the door in the cold, no hat or gloves, a thin sports coat but he doesn't show any discomfort standing there going on as I nod - "Sorry I have to lock up." He turns slowly and walks off east toward the lake. "He yelled at me yesterday for bending his magazine," Chelsea says as I pass her. "He snapped at Eddie earlier," "Every artist has his flaws," I say - Chelsea rolls her eyes. "Whatever."
A woman with Botox lips, blonde hair, and Joan River's cheeks wearing black everything hands me children's books and wants to know the price after discount - the total is under thirty dollars. She rejects Green Eggs and Ham as too expensive - $8 after discount - two of the books feature Mexican folk tales. She looks like the type of woman who would only think of a child as some irritating distant noise.
"I'm donating them," she says. "That's nice," I reply.
She picks up one of the folklore books between her fingertips as of it had an odor about it. "I didn't know they had ethnic children's books."
I nod, "uh huh."
"Actually I wanted Little Black Sambo, but I guess you can't get that anymore."
"You can get anything on-line, but then you'd have to wait." I reply.
She doesn't acknowledge my answer and walks away with her paltry donation. I take Green Eggs and Ham and place it on the re-shelve cart, wondering what a Botox injection costs.
The Russian Debutante's Handbook
The Russian grandmother returns and once again she wants us to ship her books. "We aren't shipping anymore," I say and her hands go up, her face sags. "No you have to ship, you must, my granddaughter's birthday." She begins another birthday story, we communicate with two registers between us, so I can't catch everything. "I'm sorry, there's no one left to ship books out, that person has moved on to another store."
She waves her hands in disgust. "You must."
She walks past me carrying the books she bought, giving me a sidelong glance. "Shame on you," she says without stopping. For a moment I think Raskolnikov thoughts, her eyes looking as if they were stuck in the siege of Leningrad, suffering is what she does best.
A grifter manipulates three cups and a ball on a blue velvet board as the Orange Line travels inbound. His shill pushes past me and quickly points to the correct cup winning a dollar. Heads turn, eyes study the moves, another man bets and loses, the shill bets and wins again - the same man bets and loses, the con moves forward to more wide-eyed marks, the shill pushes past me to bet and win again. "Easy money," he laughs - the marks put their money down and lose.
Homer and Langley
Two men walk out of a Coen Brothers movie to my register, they each have over $200 in books and CDs. The older of the two is mostly toothless with a band-aid across his nose, unshaven, and wearing glasses held together with duct tape, pulls out hundred dollar bills to pay for both of them. The younger man has long grey hippie hair and his teeth are worn brown stumps.
"I told you I'd be back. Now we have to eat."
"This one has a bottomless stomach."
"But a better palate."
"You're going to eat me broke."
"We have to have something better than peanut butter."
"Okay how about grilled cheese and meatloaf?"
"You see, he'll eat anything - I prefer the Bistro."
"See, he's going to eat me broke."
I imagine the Bistro seating this ragged pair.
"You're not putting these in the back room," older toothless says. "The floorboards are ready to break."
The older one has 12 Sci-fi paperbacks - Orson Scott card and the like - "I'll read these in a week," he says. It takes five large double bags to hold everything they've bought. The younger makes the older carry more.
"Bottomless pit this one," older says as they argue over dinner on their way to the door.
A fedora-topped man in dark blue striped wool pants and black tasseled loafers reads Guns and Ammo magazine on a frigid Sunday morning Orange Line trip. I look at the quarter page semi-automatic weapon ads from three seats away as he purses his lips like fingers pulling a trigger - he is dressed in fine woolen goods as opposed to cammo - the man in the flannel suit gone guerrilla.
Long lines finally snake to an end Sunday at 6 p.m. Either because of the cold or because people have exhausted themselves - most new releases are gone - the Literature section is down to the last dregs, Children's has five shelves of this and that smashed together in no particular order - Cooking and Art are decimated.
We are no longer a book store but a flow of hands and feet, constant credit card sliding and the same comments, "I'm sorry you're closing," "I thought you got a new lease," "Just what we need, another clothing store," "Your bathrooms are filthy."
The public is a harsher mistress than Robert Heinlein's moon and we don't have any Heinlein left or Herbert, or Philip K. Dick. Employees keep changing with the days - new names that I can't keep up with. I had no idea how fast the ride was going to be.
"Do you have One Hundred Steps to a New Life?"
With one glance any reasonable person could see that finding any specific book would be a mythic task, but people continue to ask and get upset when we say the book is gone - "It's a well-known book, you must carry it." "Sorry," I say.
"What about the new Barefoot Contessa?"
"No new books," I reply.
"I didn't know you were going to stop trying." She's holding a small Chicago calendar for $7.99. "Well I'm not going to buy this if there isn't any discount." She puts the calendar down, adjusts her fur coat, wraps her Oak Street-coiffed hair in a cashmere scarf, shakes her head and takes a dramatic pause before saying, "I will not be back."
Igor the Montenegrin gives me his e-mail and phone number. He's concerned for my future and somehow thinks he can get me a job as a CAD/CAM programmer even though I've told him I don't know the first thing about CAD/CAM. He was one of the first customers I talked with. I surprised him with my knowledge of the Balkans and all its bloody drama. He has cruised the store for years, smitten by female booksellers, bordering on stalking. He often sat and read on the steps in the Children's section where a few mothers found his stare inappropriate and complained.
We talked ancient history and, although I was never quite sure, I think his stare was more the stare of a thousand years of unforgotten history best forgotten. He's returning home to Montenegro, his mother is sick, but he wants to make sure I can get in touch. I take his e-mail and stuff it in my pocket with six or seven other customer notes, people feel better when they watch you write down their concerns. I add them to this diary not to be fixed, but as a record of what will never be fixed.
I Stand and Watch As Tears Go By
By the time I got to her, she was crying. She wanted to return a graphic novel without a receipt and the cashier referred her to me. She was trembling and begged me in a quiet voice to take it back. She made a mistake, she said. She would take a store credit and buy another book. I told her sure. I didn't want to make whatever pain she was in any worse. She wouldn't stop crying. I kept telling her it was okay, I was taking it back. She was carrying a small cardboard box and dressed like a Saturday morning Jehovah's Witness. She left and returned with a new book still crying as I entered the exchange. She continued crying as she left, clutching book and box to her breast.
She wants Why Men Love Bitches. Her nails are as pink as the cover's graphics. She is wearing a silver-studded leather jacket and the right half of her head is shaved. I run downstairs and bring a copy back to her. "A gift," she whispers, "for a friend." She notes that I also brought up Why Men Marry Bitches, a just in case sort of thing. "My girlfriend will never marry me." She says it as she thumbs through the book as if it might offer some hope for her own situation. "She broke up with me yesterday." She looks up at me with wide open brown eyes filling with tears, because it is sometimes easier to show a stranger your pain. "Is there.." It's all she gets out, but I know what she's asking for and sadly tell her that I don't have a book that will bring your girlfriend back.
The Red Umbrella Climax
Mid-afternoon two Saturdays before Christmas, it is nearly impossible to walk through the store. Both lines for the registers are 30 customers long. A bookseller approaches me - Have you seen a red Burberry umbrella?" There is no umbrella - a mature woman stands three feet behind the bookseller. "It's red," she says again.
"Ma'am, I believe I know the color red," he responds. "Two people called to say you had it." The bookseller disappears into the crowd to search more places and I continue ringing people up. Five minutes later another bookseller approaches - the same woman shadowing him.
"Have you seen a red umbrella? Someone called from the store."
I assume control of the situation and look downstairs in the employee break room - I find a red checkered Burberry and bring it back upstairs to show the shadow woman only to find out that she is doing the bidding of another, much younger woman who steps forward to tell me I have the wrong umbrella.
"We have looked everywhere and asked everyone, I'm afraid there is no other umbrella."
"I can look up the messages," she says.
"That would be great," I say. "Perhaps we can find out who called."
"It was three months ago," she replies.
I pause before responding. "We only keep lost articles for 30 days."
"What you're telling me is that someone on your staff stole it."
"We dispose of them, we don't have enough room to store lost objects."
"How will you compensate me?"
I pause again and swallow - this hubris, this unashamed gall - this fucking bitch - I stop there and offer her books - I want books on India she says - I show her books on India, I offer her two - she takes three. This to prevent another call to corporate, a corporate call to the district manager. the district manager to the general manager, the general manager to me and me to infinity.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde
A tall woman well past fifty, long umbrella in one hand - cane in the other, stops me. She's holding a seven-county map and street guide, list price $35.00, and wants to know if I can give her more of a discount because there is the slightest of indentations along the bottom cover. The same book, albeit a bit larger, is in Bargain for $5.00. I run to get it. She yells no, stop, and holds up her cane - I'm bringing it to you I say. She looks at it and even though it is the exact same maps, same streets, same everything except two square inches larger, she says "No, I want this one. It's the size that I always get."
"I'll give you 50% off for the dent" - "Stop," she says. "I don't want it today."
"Okay, I will hold it until tomorrow." "No! I want to pay for it today and pick it up on Monday - It's too heavy to take now and I'm tired."
Every No spoken like Dr. Jekyll followed by a sweeter Mrs. Hyde.
"I won't be here Monday - too many things can go wrong between now and then."
She sighs. "If I must." I take her to a register that isn't in use.
"Not so fast," Dr. Jekyll says. I wait for Mrs. Hyde. "No bag?" she says, lilting her voice in question as I ring her up and quickly pull out a bag.
"No, stop - No bag!" Dr. Jekyll says as if the bag in my hand were an insult, then Mrs. Hyde turns to a customer lining up behind her and says, "This register is closed, he's only taking care of me."
She takes off a worn backpack, unzips it, and pulls out a half-eaten loaf of sugar bread and shows it to me. "I'm going to throw this out on Walton Street." I look at the bread and nod. I look for a ring on her left hand and see none. I look directly into her eyes - they are Mrs. Hyde now - She reaches for the lanyard holding my name tag, pulls it up seductively and says, "Thank-You, Tom." as if we had consummated an afternoon tryst. She turns and leaves, umbrella in right hand, cane in left without the hint of a limp.
Ten-foot-tall wooden Cotterman ladders on rails traverse the entire length of the History section, there are eight in all. I have travelled on all of these ladders from Ancient History to Politics and Opinion. The ladders are priced at one hundred dollars each and include a section of rail. The price would be five to six times more if purchased new.
A thirty-something woman approaches me - all fixtures for sale, see manager - she wants six ladders and asks if I know how long the rails are. Some are ten feet, others are twenty - she's buying the ones that cover the entire width of the store. She doesn't hesitate to accept the price and charges $600 dollars to her credit card. Two days later the liquidator tells me that the woman returned and bought two more.
"I wonder if she's a partner in a big law firm," I said, picturing a dark wooded room in a stately LaSalle Street building.
"It's for her closets," the liquidator replied. "10-foot-high ladders and over 80 feet of rails. Two closets to be exact, one for her shoes and one for her clothes." Closets with 12-foot ceilings, closets bigger than most living spaces with more shoes than a Payless Store, more clothes than could be worn in a lifetime - I feel sorry for the ladders trapped in airless darkness.
Coot and Kestrel
The kestrel takes the high ground atop the Archer Avenue light at the foot of the Bubbly Creek bridge. A coot skims the water and lands beneath, at least I think it's a coot, too small for a mallard and too agile and pointed for a teal - I have seen kestrels this late with lots of sparrows around to eat, but never a coot and having passed from middle to senior age just a day ago look down at this bird swimming in the stinking creek one old coot to another.
We reach 2 million dollars in net liquidation sales in 5 weeks. Not even these kinds of numbers would have saved us. The store has proceeded through the wake stage to the zombie stage. The shelves are empty of any book that I would recommend. There are a few worthwhile CDs and DVD collections but that's it, the rest is cheap remaindered books, the worst of romance, mystery, sci-fi, self-help, and business. They call me to clean up vomit in the women's room - whoever did it missed most of the commode. Cleaning it makes me want to purge my thoughts of worthless books - I try to remember the days when we had every Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Man-Booker-winning book on the shelf.
We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident
A young woman asks me why we are closing and quickly adds "I buy all my books on-line. I'm only here for the sale."
Her choices are crap. The fucking truth is self-evident. All book stores will die. The shadows of Kroch's and Stuart Brent are waiting for me. I see them standing in the corners like a dying man in a hospice sees the dead.
"I'm a little bit of a book pig," she smiles as she says it. It appears that she's holding more books than she weighs - she looks up at me. "No need to apologize." I hand her a basket.
"I worked at Kroch's for years."
"A great store in its time."
"What will you do when the store is gone?"
"You look like a writer."
"I haven't disappointed enough people to be a writer." I respond and she laughs.
"You'll find something."
"Something, yes, that would be nice."
The reality is that I have nowhere to go. The fact that I will be jobless and 60 begins to set in. I keep thinking some magical intervention is going to occur. I am the master of my own self-delusion.
"Are you a manager?" They see manager in my eyes.
"I don't want a vampire on my refrigerator. I walked all the way down here to find out that you're closing. Your calendar selection is an outrage. I don't need any fixtures for my Lake Shore Drive condo, I don't want a stupid dog calendar, I have a coupon from the newspaper and you have nothing to offer me - how dare Borders do this to me, this is false advertising - someone should pay for this."
She gave the same diatribe to Aaron five minutes earlier. My apology isn't heard, she doesn't want to hear anything that I have to say - I could have responded that the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain and she wouldn't have noticed - Her refrigerator will be without a calendar for awhile longer. When you open a refrigerator door, a light goes on.
The brutality of Christmas is evident everywhere - even most of our homeless regulars have abandoned us, some perhaps because there's very little of value left to steal, but maybe some feel like we are a dying friend you no longer know how to talk to. Burl Ives, head forever bent, is one of the few regulars left and he's made an art form out of becoming the last customer every night.
We all try to avoid him, only because he's picked a topic to discuss with each of us - Bossa Nova with me, art history with Jamie, and tonight astronomy with Eddie - the lunar eclipse to be precise - it isn't that we don't like him, it's just that we want to lock the doors, clean up the mess, and go home - for him home must be emptier than a store that's close to death.
A Woman Found Intriguing
She's using a walker, making it difficult to maneuver through people bouncing off each other like corpuscles in a Nova Science feature. Through all this she approaches me with a genuine smile. "I've been away since August." Her eyes look down at her walker. "In rehab. Can you tell me if you have any Royal typewriters for sale?" She gestures to the sign that says fixtures and equipment for sale. I stop to think that the last typewriter I saw was in the late '80's.
"No typewriters I'm afraid."
"I have an old Royal but it's in disrepair. Perhaps I can get someone to fix it."
"A lost art I'm afraid."
"Have you read A Man Called Intrepid?
"No, but I know the book."
"A great book about a historic time," her eyes alive with the memory of World War II and what must have been a youthful romance, her face flush with the heat of it. She turns and wheels away, books soon to become as forgotten as typewriters.
She looks like a black and white illustration for a Grimm fairy tale - crinkled long gray hairs springing from her upper lip and chin, dressed in black and a deep voice made deeper by its demand. "You give me shelves," she says and points to ones that are already sold.
"Sorry, those are taken."
"I'll give you more money."
"No, I can't change it."
"Okay then these." She points, I have to turn from her haggish face so as to not stare at the sheer brutality of voice.
"These aren't for sale, they are being sent to other stores."
"You sell to me," she says.
"Sorry I can't." Her credit card is declined, I tell her. "I fix," she says and makes a call speaking rapidly in Greek. "Now try," she says and the card works. She points to another shelf.
"You sell me."
She repeats. I repeat and she finally walks away.
The Man With the Golden Arm
A pile of opened sugar packets, a half-empty cup of coffee and a murky pond of puke populated by undigested fries are all that's left. A junky jonesing gauging by the number of sugars. The store has lost its thieves with nothing left to steal, but we retain our nodding junkies who puke and run.
Waiting for Godot
A couple enters the Michigan Avenue door. "We've been waiting for the 125 bus, where is it?" I pause. "It stops right out front," I say. "We've been waiting a long time. Do you know when it's coming?" I stop myself from responding with any number of insults. "Do you have a 3G phone?" "Yes," they say. I show them how to get to the CTA site and use bus tracker. They leave without another word. I am compelled to answer every question.
A young woman walks up and interrupts me as I'm trying to count twenties. She has a swollen lip and stitches over her right eye. I stop counting. "I need to check my e-mail," she says. I tell her we have Wi-Fi in the cafe. She doesn't have a laptop or phone to connect. She wants me to go down to the office, access her e-mail account, and print out a Banana Republic coupon for her. It is after 8 and I know Banana Republic is closed. The request is so over the top that I agree to it. She writes down her address and password for me - I connect but her password doesn't work. I return to her. She realizes she gave me the wrong one and writes another - this time I connect but Borders' system prevents me from accessing her account. I report back to her, "Sorry, the company blocks data if it thinks a virus might be present." She accepts this - I hand her the slip of paper with her address and password and she leaves. There are 10 days left.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
He walks directly to the register the wrong way, ignoring everyone waiting in the line facing him. He looks, talks, and dresses a bit like Mickey Rourke with Asperger's syndrome. He looks at me sideways and pauses for a long time after I answer his questions before he speaks again. He has two leather briefcases and walks with a limp. He asks his questions facing sideways - "What's going on?" "Is the café still there?" "Where are the business books?" Later he walks up to the register with three books and asks, "Where are all the spy books?" "Like mysteries?" I ask. He takes the longest of pauses as if my words travelled through a maze in his head. He finally says, "No, real spies." I go over to History and take five books back to him. "How much?" he asks. I ring up each one giving a running as I go, stopping to ask each time, "Do you want it?" He nods head sideways and grunts. They total $205.84 after the discount. He has his two leather briefcases up on the counter. He straightens his tie like Rodney Dangerfield and wheezes, "Too much man, it's too much," and walks away without looking back.
Call Me Ishmael
The sea hag walks up to me, her coat, her hat like an old grey woman standing on a Nantucket wharf in 1850. She pushes two quarters toward me and cackles, yes cackles, "Bags, my old ones are broken." I hand her two and try to give her the quarters back but she turns and walks away without another word. I've seen her and her bags roaming the street never begging - head down carrying six or seven bags never thinking she paid for them with quarters.
New Year's Eve and The Wall Street Journal reports that Borders will delay payments to some of its vendors. The stock drops from 1.17 to .97 at the opening bell. Borders is not able to meet the terms of its line of credit - an independent audit reveals that the company might have overestimated the value of its inventory. The desperate decisions of its executives who will all survive to go on to other companies to make more desperate decisions spell doom for the booksellers who feel something indescribable putting a good book in a customer's hand, we will all die the death of a thousand cuts, cuts that gathered steam before the economic collapse of 2008 and tumbled in the avalanche of Amazon.com and E-books. Every day another cut is added until we are left without one piece of untouched flesh.
Things That Begin With the Letter D
A fur-clad woman approaches me. "I need you to look up a book, a children's book that was on The Regis and Cathy Show. It begins with the letter "D". " I'm afraid our children's books are sold out." "Yes, but I need you to tell me if you carry it at another store." "I didn't see the show and a children's book starting with the letter "D" is a little too vague." "Maybe someone else knows. It's a book on good manners." "Our children's booksellers all left a month ago." "So nobody here can help me?" "I'd be happy to take your name and call you tomorrow." "But that doesn't help me now, does it?" "I would have to check their website and our Internet connection isn't working." "I'm not surprised you're closing. You obviously can't help anyone." She turns to walk away, but stops to take all the discount coupons I held in my hand. One coupon per person good for one item.
The cruelty of our closing is matched by the desperation of the company. Its website non-functional at the height of the Christmas season, its E-Reader a poor second to everyone else's, its customer service somewhere in the Philippines with hour-long waits, and its leadership in Ann Arbor incapable of saving anything.
I buy one of the Literature signs, white letters against a black background. It will be my piece of Borders. Four days left. We sent three people home early, the store nowhere near busy. Burl Ives, head bent, is the last customer every night. Tonight he regales Tyler with numerology and what his birth date signifies. I am impressed with the way his predictions flow. I only wish that I'd met him under different circumstances.
Scooter Guy scoots in on his silver scooter followed by his son on same. Scooter Guy is purchasing fixtures and asks question after question. He thinks everything is negotiable. He buys bargain books which are now five for a dollar and some computer books and makes sure that he gets his 5th book free. When I total his purchase at $61.86 he says he is sure it should have been $60.00 even. His son rolls his eyes. He looks like Bob Vila and he has that PBS tone to his voice. He pays in cash, taking care to select a dime that looks like an elf took a bite out of it.
The Glass Menagerie
She has a photo book of rare Marilyn Monroe pictures and no receipt. She heard the man who gave her the book bought it at Borders and she wants to return it. She has the cashier call me. She is in her early 60's wearing fur and too much make-up.
"I'll take a gift card please," ignoring the signs plastered all over the store that say no returns all sales final. "I'm afraid I can't." She doesn't hear me. "I don't know why he thought I'd like Marilyn Monroe, perhaps because I was young when she was a star." She fiddles with her hair like she is some equal beauty. "I can't give you anything," I repeat.
"But I know he bought it here, that's what everyone says. He gave Mary a real nice book of nature photos. I would have kept a nature book, but Marilyn Monroe, I mean really, what do I care about Marilyn Monroe?" She prims her hair again. "Of course he didn't have to give me anything I guess." "No he didn't." "So I can't go upstairs and get an art book and do an even exchange?" "We don't have any art books left." "So there's nothing I can do?" "If you get the receipt I'll take it back." "It was a gift. I can't do that. Can you imagine me asking him for the receipt?" She looks incredulous. "How much do you think the book costs?" "It looks like a fifty dollar book." She wants to put a price on what she lost, she turns, and walks away.
A sparrow has made its way down to the Red line platform on Roosevelt. I have watched it for three days flitting from pipe to garbage can unwilling to enter the darkened tunnel fore or aft, unable to find its way up the stairs. It will live out its days in fluorescent light, dine on fast food crumbs, and drink from fetid pools formed by discarded bags and newspaper. Its body will feed the rats in a city that eats its own.
The store is midnight empty at 7:45 p.m. - bargain books are selling at five cents each five for twenty cents. Mickey Rourke with Asperger's syndrome was in and asked if the new store will be keeping the elevator. The empty shelves, cavernous ceilings, and broken lights render us as corpses. It is the penultimate night - we hasten people out, not because we want to leave early but because we can't take the same questions over and over. A customer becomes outraged. "It's only 9:55, we have five more minutes to shop." "Can we help you find a book?" "I don't want a book." "Then we are asking you to leave." "No wonder you're going out of business. I hope you all lose your jobs."
His shoes are worn and he needs a shave, he crosses the street to the Water Tower and paces back and forth staring back at us, wanting his five minutes back. The last customers at the registers are teachers from downstate. They drove two hours to get here. I have talked to them every year during Educator Savings Week. They mourn with us for a few moments respectfully and disappear down Pearson. Five minute man still paces across the street. Thirty minutes later after the money is safely away and the few books left put in their puny places I leave to find five minute man gone, everything is gone. The staff discusses blackbirds falling from the sky in the thousands and crustaceans washing up dead on beaches. We all begin to wonder if it's the end times, and I am relieved not to be coming in on the final day.
January 7, 2011, is the last day open to the public. Burl Ives with head bent came in and left three CDs for me, all Joe Pass & Ella Fitzgerald. It is an unbelievable act of largess.
When Doves Cry
Doves die in Italy, dead fish wash ashore in the Chesapeake Bay, the Roosevelt platform sparrow perches on the third rail unaware of the power coursing beneath its feet. It's the first day of cleaning out the store, the only customers are those who bought fixtures. We are Egyptian embalmers pulling the brain out through the nose, cleaning out 19 years of structure and hidden dust. People bounce off the Pearson doors all day long like migrating birds flying into skyscraper windows. The phone continues to ring with customers asking us to look up a book, a dictionary from Pashtu to English, something by Dr. Seuss, one woman says she has a long list to check. I interrupt her to say we are closed. She pauses and begins a long maudlin good-bye almost crying at the end saying that she's moving to Hong Kong in April and will be relieved not to have to pass our empty store. A Channel 7 camera crew sets up across the street and aims it at the Pearson Street doors. We move so as not to be in the shot. Scooter Guy comes and thinks he's going to move an 8' long, three hundred pound, solid oak table with his 14-year-old Scooter Son. He wanders around because he likes to wander and kibitz and shake everyone's hand not wanting to admit there's no way on earth he's moving the table. He ponders the situation long enough to surrender without losing face. His son rolls his eyes. Blue coat homeless man paces up and down along the other side of Pearson. Rouge woman, talking to herself, walks by the store throughout the day. She is barely five feet tall, and in her eighties. Two broad patches of rouge, as thick as sidewalk chalk, cover each cheek and she wears a wig that is always slightly askew. She used the store as a thoroughfare, always entering on Pearson and exiting on Michigan. We have interrupted her route, leaving her looking more lost than usual. The homeless have lost a place to come in from the cold, a bathroom, a chair to sit in. I see blue coat man for another thirty minutes and then he's gone.
A woman with a walker rings the bell, she has come to pick up one café chair and one table. I balance the table on her walker. She is an engineer she says, she's taking it home on the bus she says, no need to worry she says, someone always helps. She returns within two hours and I place the chair as instructed on her walker, she's an engineer she says, no need to worry she says.
Large groups of contractors invade our space preparing for the coming changes. Dowsing, a plumber looks for water pipes buried beneath our basement floor - he thinks he finds water right outside the public bathrooms. "Everyone laughs, but it really works." The building engineer stands behind him eyebrows raised, I wash my hands of it with the last of our soap.
Last Train Leaving for the Coast
A fur-clad Gold Coast matron knocks on the door. She is blonde and made up like all the rest, a St. Laurent bag in one hand - she is here for a magazine stand, which I can't imagine as part of her decor, she has called at least three times to discuss the height of it, the transportation of it, and the availability of it. Now she is here. She lives a block away and has decided she will roll it home down Pearson Street, appearances be damned. It is dark out so perhaps no one will notice the fur-clad incongruity of it all.
The Pearson door was left unlocked for a few seconds and a woman strolls in, head up, carrying a Giorgio Armani shopping bag, she struts down empty aisles without the least bit of hesitancy looking side to side without a clue. I approach her and tell her the store is closed. She looks past me and wordlessly turns and exits.
Gerry started with the store in '94. He is one of the longest-tenured booksellers in the company, certainly the oldest employee at this store, he has lasted through seven or eight general managers, and hundreds of booksellers who have come and gone - he still isn't certain where he's going - no other store wants to take on his salary since he earns twice as much as most booksellers. He is leaving the store for the last time. He turns to face me, 16 years of memories in his eyes, he looks beyond me as if trying to capture one good moment to take with him. I touch his shoulder and feel the past rushing through him. As empty as I have felt since all this began, I now feel even emptier. He is the tide going out, never to return. All that is left are broken book cases, magazine inserts, and sporadic clumps of dust.
People come to claim their shelf or fixture. They are insects swarming a roadside carcass. Shelves are the sun bleached bones stripped of the flesh of books. The temporary help is gone - jobless or transferred to other stores - there are three of us left, the liquidator, myself and Jill, three of us to carry the coffin to the grave.
Hundreds of black wood screws litter the floor and fixtures are stacked everywhere. People continue to come with vehicles too small to fit what they bought. The old Greek woman comes, she wants someone to help her, she wants a tape measure, she complains that her shelves are broken. We give her her money back and after doing so, she takes the broken shelves, stuffing them into a too-small caravan, her grandson silent the whole time. We have no computers, no fax machine, no email, no connection to anything other than a single phone that continues to ring. We have nothing to offer. We unplug the phone and there is silence.
All Along the Watchtower
My final overnight, they can only take down the signs on the outside of the building overnight. The electrician calls me upstairs, there is a sign on the sixth floor he needs inside access to - the problem is that we only go up three floors - I show him the elevator in the outside hallway, we take it to 6 - there is another stairwell that goes two flights up - a door like those of an ocean-going ship marked "roof" is at the top - "I have to get out there," he says - I remember the key labeled "roof" in the basement key box - a key I thought useless - I retrieve it and return. It is midnight with a slurry of sleet falling - there are granite squares that make a path from the door to the edge of the roof top - I am looking south through the sleet down at Michigan Avenue - I feel like Jesus brought to the temple roof by Satan, except I know nothing beneath me will ever be my kingdom - the electrician walks as if he is on the ground, I slow down, my eyes even with the top of the Water Tower - he reaches the building corner and points over the edge to the letters, I join him, I reach over to touch one and see how far down the sidewalk is - "I can't get over far enough to get the transformer behind them," he says - the sleet is soaking both of us, we are without jackets, I grip the roof key in my right hand - a siren sounds from Michigan Avenue. "We'll cross the wires from the outside and create a short, that'll have to do." I agree and carefully make my way back across the concrete squares, the siren fades, "My Kingdom is not of this world," I think, it is not of any world. I feel my shirt soaked from leaning over the edge.
The next day a new group of scavengers arrive, they are more experienced than the rest. They destroy the massive CD cases that covered the third floor in one afternoon. They are Ted Nugent conservative and Jesse Ventura suspicious. They work hard, trading their labor for the value of the goods they can scrap or sell. They come from Steger and most wear blue and orange Chicago Bear's jerseys. They believe the government is building concentration camps, they believe in Metallica, they believe in guns. I listen, I am no longer in the business of changing beliefs, I believe that they will cleanse this store of its broken bones and respect what it was in the process and for this I am grateful. I listen to their beliefs and nod my head, not in agreement, but in trying to understand.
The second floor drain, the basement urinals, and the sink in the break room all continue to breed fruit flies. They attack my eyes and nose whenever I relieve myself or walk past the sink. They will be the last living things left in the store.
All the signs are gone from the walls inside and outside. The dirt and dust that surrounded the letters remain, leaving a ghostly shadow of the name.
In the crush of trying to remove everything, we disconnect a router for the Verizon tower on the roof. We have the router packed as part of the IT equipment going back to Ann Arbor. Thousands of Verizon customers have lost their signal. We discover our error and quickly return it to its closet before the field rep comes to the door. He explains that there is a problem with the router and needs access to the closet. We show him the room and say nothing - can you hear me now?
On my final day I am informed that the Hyde Park store they are sending me to will close in six weeks. It's like the earwig episode of Night Gallery. I have survived the earwig eating its way through my brain only to be told it was a female that laid its eggs. I am the last Borders employee standing at main info, it is cold next to the windows. The president of China is staying at the hotel across the street. Protesters and supporters with flags and banners line both sides of Michigan Avenue at Chicago. When I leave, my memory of this store and what it was will leave with me. Every section had its own feeling and texture from Reference to Media, from Austen to Vonnegut. Out of the hundreds who worked here, and the thousands upon thousands who browsed here, I am the last connection. When I leave, the store's death will be complete, and like all dead, soon to be forgotten.
I spend my final hour in the lower level bargain section moving the bulky wooden shelves like old sailing ships and beneath them, warped and dusty, are the last books left in the store, a tapas cookbook, an infant board book, and a toddler toilet training book. The toilet training book has a sound button that echoes the flush of a toilet. It still works.
I say good bye to the liquidator who was a decent man. A man who looked like the men pictured in the Schlitz beer ads of the early '60's. Men with flat top haircuts and broad honest faces, men that you'd like to sit down and have a drink with.
He recalls that I was the first person he talked to when he came to the store and now I am the last.
Borders files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on February 16, 2011, and is gone by September.