Sometimes Things Happen

January 28, 2014 at 7:18 pm (General) (, , , )

I’ve been a bit squirrely for the past few months, and there were Reasons, but while I was in the midst of dealing with them on a daily basis, I found I couldn’t come home and explain it online, couldn’t talk about it more, but now I think it’s time for some explanations, largely because it’s also a form of goodbye. Not to you- I’m not leaving- but to my home for the past six years, and a large part of my life for twenty.

On 31st December, my Barnes and Noble closed its doors for the last time. This wasn’t an indication of how the company as a whole is doing, it wasn’t an indication of our store faltering or our local market not supporting us. Boiled down to its bones, our landlord didn’t renew our lease. There were details, of course, but to be honest, things got pretty messy after the announcements and it became a Big Thing, and in the interest of it not becoming a Legal Thing, I’m going to leave it at the lease.

Employees learned about it in September. Our District Manager was up (not unheard of) and she’d spent the day holed up in the office (not uncommon; even on store visits she still gets stuck on conference calls). What made it weird was the sudden appearance of our assistant store manager, who was supposed to be off that day and had been called in. Then the arrival of one of our merchandise managers, who was on vacation (but still in town). Eventually the other merch manager was called in, and then it was my turn, and by this point we were all wondering just what the hell what was going on. And the news was, we’d be closing at the end of the year.

When you hear something like that, there are any number of questions that bubble into your mind all at once, but damned if you can pull yourself together enough to ask them with any degree of intelligence. You want to ask about transfers, about severance, about eligibility for rehire, about insurance. But mostly HOW. Mostly WHY.

And once you get safely home and break down in private: What do I do now?

It was another month before we started telling customers, and even then we eased into a bit. There were a few of our regulars, people who are so much more to us than customers, that we told a few days early, but for the most part, we waited until the first clearance signs went up. We needed time to get used to it ourselves, we needed time to find out what we were allowed to say, how we were supposed to answer questions.

On October 27th, the first of the clearance sales went up. At that point, we had about 125,000 books and product in the store, and about a quarter of it went to clearance, all things that were unable to be returned to vendors. Unlike all of our previous clearance sales (because they happen about every two to three months), the dots marking the products were white, instead of red, and at every sale we had to warn people that these items could NOT be returned. I was actually somewhat shocked at how many people were utterly incurious as to why. But for most, this was where the questions began. The initial reactions were mostly shock and dismay. We were in our location for twenty and a half years, and a fair number of our customers have actually been with us the entire time. We used to have a hugely active preschool and elementary school community that partnered with us for events, and a lot of those kids who grew up in our store had started bringing their own kids in.

I never did the storytimes or the activities, but I was one of the kids who grew up in the store. I was there opening week with my mother, and it was the first time I’d ever told anyone that I wanted to published someday. I spent my allowance in this store, my birthday/Christmas/babysitting money. All of my original books were ruined in a house fire when I was 12, but three years later, I got to drop a couple hundred dollars in our Barnes and Noble (and trust me, I’d EARNED that babysitting money!) and finally got to buy my favorite books, the ones I’d checked out so often from the library that I could almost quote them. I still have almost all of those (some of the paperbacks have passed to friends as I’ve broken down and replaced them in hardcover), and sometimes it’s weird to look at the backs of the books and realize this was when mass markets were rarely higher than $4.99. Money wasn’t something we had a lot of, but when I had it, it tended to find its way to bookstore far more often than not. This store was a home for me, and as a child, I was awestruck by the idea that so much knowledge, so much wonder and imagination, could be contained within a single building.

There were tears from some of our customers, fury from others. There was a rather depressing indifference from some. But then, there were some reactions that utterly baffled us.

Like the man who said he wasn’t surprised we were closing, because we’d politely refused to place an order on Amazon for him because he didn’t want to bother with his computer.

Like the woman who sniffed and said it was about time, because we’d been unable to send someone to her home to diagnose her router issues.

Like the ones who said no one read anyway, or that books were dying, or that Amazon was a better place anyway. (And do you have any idea how difficult it is not to snap back that Amazon isn’t a place at all?)

But no matter how the conversation went, the fact was, the conversation happened. Again and again and again and again. So. Many. Times. A. Day. And it was exhausting. Because sometimes the conversation twisted around to “What are you going to do now?” and we didn’t know (many of us still don’t know) and it was terrifying and we really didn’t want to talk about the uncertainty of our future inability to pay our bills. And sometimes the conversation turned to “What am I going to do now?” and it was both strange and discomfiting that some people could be so incredibly selfish, when there are SO MANY avenues by which to acquire books. We’d have to explain that no, we weren’t simply moving locations, because those things take time and we didn’t have any. We’d explain again and again until finally we just wanted to hide in the breakroom and talk about ANYTHING ELSE because we could actually FEEL our brain cells dying. We’d get home and I know for myself, I could do nothing more than drop onto the couch and stare mindlessly at the TV. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do anything that required actual thought, because I was just so mentally exhausted.

The news had come so out of the blue that most of our holiday orders were already locked in, so it took a while for our shelves to start to feel empty. But, slowly, the shipments slowed down. Gradually, our ability to restock the shelves was cut off, vendor by vendor, warehouse by warehouse. Eventually, our ability to order books for customers transitioned to only direct-ship. We had to shift constantly to condense those empty shelves, and as weeks passed, entire sections of the store were just bare shelves.

And as we got into December, the desperation ratcheted up. Our customers were desperate to believe that there was some kind of reprieve in store, that if they just wrote enough angry letters or made enough angry phone calls to our landlord, somehow everything would be okay. As employees, we were torn between wanting to believe that and wanting everyone else to stop believing it.

But, we found ways to entertain ourselves, in a thoroughly giddy, borderline-hysterical kind of way.

Thanksgiving weekend, our assistant store manager decided to gift-wrap the breakroom door. I helped, and then took it further, until all the interior doors save the bathrooms were bright and sparkly (but without glitter, because one of our merch managers freaks out at glitter).

Outside of the Office Door

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We even found the polar bears because they make our store manager happy.

I have to admit, I kind of turned into a demented Christmas fairy, because it kept me busy. I made ornaments for everyone on staff. I made a wreath for our inner office. It kept me busy and kept me, a little bit, from fretting.

One night, one of my rare closing shifts, a couple of our cashiers decided to put out scrap pads (recycled page a day calendars) and asked customers to draw what they thought a whalien would look like. Sometimes they’d add a little explanation, but most of the time, they just would just say to draw what they thought it sounded like. I was astonished by how many ACTUALLY DID. We made a quilt of them. (I accidentally deleted that picture, but it was pretty awesome) It hung out at the cashwrap for that final week of business, and then the next couple of weeks of actually closing everything out, then moved to the fridge when we had to take those bays out.

For our final two days of business, our glitterphobe made us a playlist that included titles like “Final Countdown”, “Closing Time”, “End of the World (As We Know It)”, and other thematically appropriate (or inappropriate, all things considered) titles. The final day he included “Dance Magic” from Labyrinth, and “The Time Warp”, and we actually did dance the Time Warp in the cashwrap line. By the last day, we’d reached the point where we had to laugh like idiots because we just didn’t know what else to do and still function. (I’m told there’s video of that somewhere, but I haven’t seen it, so I’m pretending it doesn’t exist).

We closed on New Years Eve at 4 pm, because there really wasn’t much point in drawing it out, and we all trooped out across the parking lot to Ale House and started drinking. (Responsibly, but still, it was a drinking sort of evening).

For most of our staff, that was the end of it. As a store, we had over time transitioned into a staff made of disparate personalities that worked together really well. We didn’t have the big dramas that we’d had in some other incarnations of the staff, we didn’t have the fights. Were there issues? Sure. But we were also a staff that could talk through those problems, or take them to a manager for mediation without it being a tattle-tale situation. As a staff, we’d become very close-knit, family and friends. Saying goodbye that night was like a physical blow.

And yet, if I’m honest, I might be a little jealous of the people who go to leave when the store was about half full, because the actual process of closing out the store, seeing it disappear little by not so little every day, was heart-breaking. (And back-breaking) Day by day, we watched the store dwindle into nothingness.

We had to return all of the books that were left, which tallied up to about 65,000 units once the doors closed. We had to sort them by vendor, scan them, box them, try to get the box packed as efficiently as possible with a 50lbs weight limit in mind, label, them, and stack them. Then, either the guys in the evening, or I the next morning, would move them into the back room and stack them onto palettes. Over time, that equaled over 36,000 lbs. That’s right, over 18 TONS of books. One of those days included me packing up all of our copies of A Wounded Name. In a way, I was lucky- my book was in my store. My dream of seeing my book on the shelf of THIS Barnes & Noble, THIS store that I grew up in, came true, and I got to have my signing. But returning those books was shattering. We got an insane amount done each day, but…

..some days you just had to take a break…

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…and if you sat too long in the wrong spot, you took the risk of becoming part of the furniture.

We had to figure out what was going to other stores, and how we could pack them, and tear down sections to load into the truck, and the information kept changing, constantly, so we never really had a full idea of what was going on. We had to figure out what we could donate to different organizations, what we were allowed to sell to other organizations. One of our poor guys spent about three days doing nothing but shredding, sitting huddled in our cold back room as it emptied around him, because the cold kept the silly machine from overheating quite as often.

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When the demolition crew came in, I think what hit me hardest was the destruction of the theme wall and children’s octagon. Before moving to receiving, I was the Kids’ Lead, and I loved it. Kids books, from board book through YA, are my heart, and watching it get literally torn to pieces was devastating. The sequence was just..GAH.

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This was before, and then there was this:

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(Okay, yes, we sent our manager’s grandson down the wall mounting. Okay, FINE, I went down a few times too)

But even when we had moments to rest or laugh-

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-things just kept going away.

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Over the course of seventeen days, we saw a healthy store diminish into an empty space that suddenly, shockingly, seemed as tiny as we’d always sort of known it was. It’s only 12,000 square feet. In terms of bookstore space, that’s minimal. And yet, with the shelves and the books, with the vitality, it seemed so much bigger.

Friday was our very last day. We cleaned, we waited for our equipment to pick up, and then it was time to say goodbye. I worked at that store for six years, but it was a part of my life for more than twenty. And the truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing from here. I had some applications out, one of which got me very excited about taking new paths, but they didn’t pan out. There will be many more applications in the next few weeks. Hopefully something will work out, hopefully it will turn out to be a great thing, a good opportunity in something new, something exciting. But for right now, I don’t know.

It’s hard to go into the plaza and see that empty space. It’s hard to go to bed whenever and get up whenever, because I don’t have any particular place I have to be. My apartment is in the middle of getting cleaner and more organized than it has ever been (or might ever be again), and it’s kind of creeping me out, because I don’t stress clean. It’s also not done yet, but it’ll get there, and I have this awful feeling that I’ll get everything put perfectly in a place and I’ll still be unemployed. It’s hard to walk out of the grocery store and see nothing but this:

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Things end, and sometimes it sucks, and sucks royally, and I’ll be honest, I’m not yet at the point where I can nod and accept that things might yet turn out for the better. I’m not at a point where I can be philosophical or hopeful about it. But, I think I might finally be at a point when I can ask a favor of all of you.

If you have a favorite bookstore, whether it’s chain or indie, let the employees know how much you love the store, how much you appreciate them. Make the decision that the buck or two extra, or the day or two extra, is worth shopping there to support them, rather than Amazon. Write, call, or e-mail the landlords to tell them how much you value the store. Support your local stores, and help them stay where they are, because seriously, while the internet is a wonderful community (most of the time) there’s just nothing that beats having a bookstore as a part of your experience. As much as it hurts now that my store is closed, I wouldn’t trade those years growing up in the store for anything. Bookstores and libraries were- and remain- my favorite places, and I know a lot of you are the same way.

So talk about your bookstores.
Tell the employees.
Tell other customers.
Tell the landlords.
Tell anyone you can think of that might listen.

Things are hard for bookstores right now, because online is so convenient, and usually cheaper, and sometimes faster. That isn’t what happened to us, but it could have been. A bookstore closing- for any reason- is never less than a tragedy.

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The Rewards of Storytime

March 8, 2011 at 10:01 pm (General) (, , )

For about a year and a half now, part of my job description has included performing our partnered storytime each month. Our store is uber tiny, so we work with the Chick-fil-A across the road as part of their family night rotation. The second Tuesday of every month, I head over with my bag of coloring pages, my shoebox full of craptastic crayons (the store’s, not mine- I’m one of those people that can barely stand to peel back the paper when the crayon needs to be sharpened), and a stack of books. I’d always thought storytime had to be one of the cushiest assignments in the world. You go, you read, they color, no biggie.

Any by now, anyone who’s actually worked a large-scale storytime is laughing at me. Deservedly so.

Needless to say, I learned the error of my ways.

First off, there’s selection. Some months are easy- if there’s a major holiday in the month that falls after the second Tuesday, score! But what about all those other pesky months? In September, school’s already started, so you can’t really do the back to school stuff, and if you do that at the beginning of August, that’s just depressing. And what about Christmas and Easter? Yes, Chick-fil-A is a Christian organization, but how do you balance out the religious with the secular? Or do you just do the secular and let the rest sort itself out in the hopes that maybe this way you won’t offend anyone? Then, when you’ve picked your theme, you have to find the books that have engaging enough stories and pictures to keep the kids in their seats, not so short that they feel cheated, but not so long that they get bored. Larger formats are better, of course, because then it’s easier for everyone to see at once, but that’s not always an option.

Then you have to find coloring pages. Sometimes the company sends some along, but while some kids will spend the entire two hours on a single masterpiece, others will scrawl across the lines with a single color and then want to move on the next picture. You want to make sure you have pages for all age levels, enough for the kids who’ll camp out the entire time to not have to repeat, but not so many that the trees start crying when you walk to the printer. And, of course, you have to find more than what’s provided, especially if the themes don’t fit together. For that, every month I bless Crayola for their free coloring pages. They have saved my hide more than once, along with other free, sans copyright pages with a google search.

Where it gets interesting is when the kids start showing up. With Chick-fil-A, the family night is a two hour block where parents can buy a meal for themselves and get a free meal for a kid, let them run and scream in the play area, molest the enormous cows that are far better sports than I could ever manage, and do various activities off to one side. Very few of them will actually stay for the full two hours, so there’s generally a sort of rotation as fresh waves enter the restaurant. You have kids joining in the middle of stories, or getting pulled away in the middle of stories. You have kids interrupting CONSTANTLY, either with questions (that may or may not have anything to do with the story) or the kind of baseless observations that only little kids seem to be able to get away with. You’re reading for two hours straight, but sometimes they want to hear the same book over and over and over and over again, and sometimes you get to the end of a stack of eight books and they look disappointed when they realize you’re not going to pull a ninth one out of your sleeve. They talk over each other, and you, they spill drinks, complain they can’t see the pages, chatter about school and friends and family plans, and if the cow walks by, forget any attention you may have managed to hold.

It’s exhausting.

And it’s amazing.

Every now and then, I’ll get a set of slightly older girls who ask if they can help me read. They stumble over words, and they don’t have a rhythm, but just the fact that they want to try is wonderful. Their mother credits this for improved grades at school; they’re participating in their classes now, more comfortable with reading aloud. There are some kids who get so hooked into the stories that they forget about the coloring and just stare at the page, and get so excited that they try to figure out what happens next while you’re struggling to turn the page. They recognize you from month to month and can’t wait to tell you all about school and friends, and it’s awesome to hear them talk about it even if you really are trying to read to an entire table full of kids.

And every once in a great while, you get a kid you know you’ll remember for a really long time. Our Christmas storytime was insane, packed with kids the entire time, way too many for one person to manage at our small group of tables. One of the books was Chris van Allsburg’s Polar Express, and either the publisher or the company had sent along a box of jingle bells on ribbons as giveaways. (In retrospect, I should have given them the bells as they were leaving, but hey, you learn something each time). One little girl, who probably wasn’t above eighteen months, picked up a bell, and her mother crouched down next to her and reminded her of the story, where if you believe in Santa Claus, you can hear the bell ring. Little girl gives her mother a panicked look, very solemnly shakes the crap out of that bell, and when she hears it, breathes this HUGE sigh of relief that cracked up every adult around. She believed, she just needed the proof of that belief.

Then there was a pair of brothers, maybe four and eight years of age, who came near the end of that same storytime. Big Brother was old enough to realize that the cow was actually just a person in a costume, and had in the last year discovered that Santa was actually Dad’s handwriting on a package with different paper. His parents had been living in fear all year that he’d ruin Little Brother’s Christmas by pointing this out to him. While I’m reading one of the other stories, Little Brother is very concerned about whether or not the cow is able to eat, because he must be hungry, but they don’t serve cow food at CFA! Big Brother starts to tell him that it’s just a person in a costume but I cut in and told Little Brother that the cow would eat in private once everyone was gone, because cows are very messy eaters and they don’t want to embarrass themselves by eating that way in front of people. Little Brother is happy as a clam, Big Brother is willing to leave it alone for the moment.

Then we got to Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus. If you’ve never read a version of this story, do yourself a favor and find one. It’s about a little girl named Virginia who lived in New York during a great recession, and she believed in Santa with everything she was, even when it meant being Santa for someone else by doing something kind. When some other kids made fun of her, she wrote to the Editor of The Sun (“if you see it in The Sun, it’s so!”) and asked him if there was a Santa Claus. The word for word response is available online, and it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes when you consider that this was the front page of that day’s paper. Oh, didn’t I mention? This is a true story. The basic gist of the response is that whether the figure we know of as Santa Claus is real or not, we make it real by sharing kindness, hope, and goodness to others, so when we do things to benefit others, Santa Claus is real. Big Brother looked very thoughtful through most of this story, especially when I told him it was true, and then looked over at Little Brother. Mom bit her lip and braced herself for the worst. Then Big Brother pulled over one of the activity sheets, scooted next to Little Brother with a crayon in hand, and said “Tell me what you want to write to Santa; I’ll write it for you”. And Mom burst into tears.

I will remember that pair of boys for a very long time, quite possibly even the rest of my life, because it was proof positive of the power a story has to change people. Is it the end of the world if one child doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore? By no means. But isn’t it magic if, in a world that’s so bent on scandals and harsh truths, a child can believe in Santa Claus for just one more year? Or two? Because that magic counts for something.

You can never tell how a kid will react to a story. Sometimes you can actually see them absorbing something from it, and all too rarely, you actually get to see how that turns out. Sometimes they fall so deeply in love with a story that they won’t stop begging until their parents promise to stop on the way home and buy a copy of the book to take home with them. Because they don’t just want the story now, they want it forever (or at least what they think of as forever). The parents may or may not thank you for this. When in doubt, smile and remind them that books are easier to clean up than puppies.

That’s not to say it’s all rainbows and ponies. You get the days where the kids are all shrieking over each other in such a way that you’re pretty sure your ears are about to start bleeding. You get the kids who behave so atrociously, not just to you but to the other children, that you ignore the small voice in your head warning that you’re about to get fired because you’re already hauling the kid across the restaurant to give them back to their parents until they can remember how to behave appropriately and not ruin things for the other children. You get the spills, the bad tempers, the interruptions, the “this story is stupid”, the hoarse throat and dry cough because you’ve recited yourself into dehydration.

Or, as I learned with tonight’s adventure, the child who stands up and promptly starts projectile vomiting all over the table, the floor…the girl across from him…

All hazards aside, storytime is one of my favorite times of the month. I always learn something new there. I get to see the pride a child takes when he or she can write out their name, even if the E is still backwards. I get to marvel, EVERY SINGLE TIME, at the fact that when presented with a shoebox FULL of crayons, seven out of ten children will reach for the plain pencil and start coloring with it. A cow who can color within the lines is never less than awesome. And I get to see the moment when the story becomes more interesting than the coloring page, when it’s not just the pretty pictures and the sound of my voice but the STORY that captivates them, and I know they’re going to start asking for bedtime stories, for books, for a way to take that feeling and make it their own not through an accident of circumstance, but through a love of story.

Storytime really is its own reward. Even with the…mishaps…it is one of the most rewarding things about my job. Most bookstores and libraries sponsor storytimes; even if you don’t have kids, check them out. See if you can help with them, even if it’s just offering to bring snacks on rotation. Check in with elementary schools or daycares or preschools and see if you can volunteer. Even when it’s just reading a single story, you never know how that story, or your reading it aloud to a classroom or group, could change lives- including your own.

Until next time~

Cheers!

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There’s Just Something About A Book

March 2, 2011 at 10:11 am (Digital) (, )

In almost every article I see about the bankruptcy and closing of Borders, there’s a section that calls this the first major fall in the demise of the physical bookstore.

*blink blink*

Say what?

 Some of these leave it at the doorstep of poor economic times, or the strengths of the internet superstores, but most will continue on into the thread that ebooks are ringing the death peals over the physical stores.

I’ll be the first to admit that my perspective is a little colored by pecuniary interests (I like having a roof over my head, thank you) and by personal affection, but I honestly don’t think it’s even possible for the idea of a physical bookstore to die. Yes, times are hard, and yes, a lot of people (myself included) have those infernal e-readers that will doubtless destroy civilization, but for the true book lover, there is absolutely nothing to replace the feeling of walking into a building and seeing waves of books; of being able to pick them up, feel the weight in your hands and know the texture of the ink and paper; of being able to smell the book (but be careful with this, shipping boxes kind of reek, and if the book hasn’t had a week or so to air out on the shelf, you might regret that deep breath against the spine). You can walk in and know that some of these babies are coming home with you tonight. Then, when you get home, they get to join all of the others in whatever system you have, be it neatly placed in alphabetical order on shelves or stacked on the floor wherever you have a stack that won’t fall over when you add to it.

I love libraries- I spent most of my summers in them as a kid- but there was always something a little sad about them, too, because I didn’t get to keep the books. I wanted to have them whenever I wanted, so I could read and reread them without the worry of a waiting list or a drive to the nearest branch, or what have you. And there were deadlines, due dates, so you couldn’t savor the books as you really wanted to, you had to just read through them as quickly as possible so you didn’t get slapped with a late fee. When you walk home from a bookstore with a bag, you’re creating your own library, your own fortress of books, a room full of adventures and dreams and knowledge and advice. 

E-books, and therefore e-readers, are convenient. In the end, that’s really all it comes down to. It’s not that people are absolutely captivated by the idea of never holding a physical book. It’s just more convenient. You can carry more books, you can get books immediately, they’re often a little cheaper because production costs are lower, and you’re not ripping the covers off your paperbacks by throwing them in the backpack along with everything else known to man and God. For college students who don’t have the space for a physical library, for people who move a great deal, for people with the visual impediments that keep them from enjoying books with smaller print, e-readers are convenient.

But true book lovers, even if they have an e-reader, still come into the stores (and not just for tech support). They still browse the shelves, still pick up the books, and frequently still buy them. Found an ebook they absolutely love and will reread constantly while they’re traveling? Great! And then a large number of them promptly buy a physical copy to keep on their shelves, to loan to people without e-readers, to be able to pick up and savor on the couch when they just want to feel the weight of a book in their hands.  As wonderful as the children’s books are on the color e-readers, they don’t replace having the books on the shelves, don’t substitute for families sitting together over a lap book or hardcover picture book and reading as a family. And, from a purely technical standpoint: it’s not safe for the wee ones to chew on the e-reader. Soaking the pressed cardboard in a board book won’t harm them (might even help with digestion), and the eight dollar board book is a lot cheaper to replace than the e-reader.

 Borders is not the bellweather for the book industry. Companies are not going to blindly follow it into bankruptcy simply because some people think the time of the physical book is a memory. Quite simply, Borders isn’t indicative of the industry as a whole. They’ve had problems for years, and for anyone who’s been paying attention, formally filing for bankruptcy isn’t a surprise. Is it lamentable? Yes, it’s always sad when a bookstore closes, and there are a lot of people who are now looking for jobs in a time when it’s hard to find them. But it’s not a surprise.

And it’s not the way the world of reading is going. People buy books because they love books, in whatever form the books happen to be. E-readers augment things wonderfully, they make things very convenient, but they don’t replace them.  I firmly believe that nothing ever will.

There’s just something about a book.

Until next time~

Cheers!

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