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Our Passions, Our Day Jobs

The Day Borders Got the Wobblies

As Borders liquidates its merchandise, a former employee of store #21 looks back at a glorious workplace—of quirky managers, Borders gypsies, the odyssey to stack more than Hobby/Collectibles—and the moment when salvation seemed at hand to save the chain.

Lauren Tamaki for The Morning News

The skinny old man hits on me every day at three in the afternoon. That’s when I am assigned to work the help desk at Borders store #21 in Center City Philadelphia. He has been particularly daring since he learned that I’ve just finished my master’s degree in poetry.

“Moon, June, and spoon!” he declares.

The old man lingers on the “spooooon” and he licks and caresses the air as if it were my squirming body. A few months earlier I was practicing poor posture at parties for big important writers who would blow through Iowa City to gaze upon the crop of young authors at the workshop the way one regards a precancerous melanoma upon one’s ass. Oh, the crazy things those famous and semi-famous authors did in their youths. How very romantic it all was to be an amateur drunk in Iowa City. After regaling us with youthful exploits, the author would select one of us for the evening the way aliens hoover up some hapless farmer for midnight probings. I had wanted to be one of them: the genius center of the party. I had wanted to score chicks with words. Now I am a $6.50-an-hour Borders guy. My youthful self-importance has been cut off at the knees with a daily chorus of “Moon, June and spooooooon!”

Neil, our manager, calls me over the intercom with a “Jonathan, please dial 42.” This is his code for “nothing is happening, but I’m saving you from a rude customer.” It is also his nod to The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “42” is the answer to the ultimate question of how to escape the clutches of a horny old man.

Elegant shelving policy didn’t save Borders from ruin. Today, the chain is in liquidation. The Philadelphia Orchestra is bankrupt. Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s. The Hobby/Collectibles section has disappeared into the cloud.

Neil is the guy who brings the quirky mid-’90s vibe to this bookstore. Neil lets homeless men sleep in the big reading chair in two-hour shifts. Neil encourages my co-worker Dan to play guitar in the café even if his songs are all about how New York City is a boat sailing away with his ex-girlfriends. Neil allows me to dress the front of the store with Marvin Bell’s The Book of the Dead Man, a difficult book of poetry purchased by exactly zero customers. (One thing Borders does well is track its inventory.) Neil wears unlaced hiking boots in the summertime. His hair is dark and long. His daily uniform is a Nirvana T-shirt underneath a suit jacket. When mentally disturbed customers spread feces on the walls of the bathroom, Neil cleans it himself. Neil says they don’t pay us enough for that duty. Everybody loves Neil.

“If I love you, what business is it of yours?” spits the horny old man.

I run to the back of the store to answer Neil’s 42.

 

In 1995, a few months into my Borders career, I discovered the Philadelphia orchestra. My out-of-date Iowa ID got me $10 student rush tickets and an evening of high culture. I sat alone in the third balcony near the crumbling rafters and massive chandelier. Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was what convinced me that the universe was a vast and wondrous place worth exploring. There was something in the warp and weft of that symphony, the play of the big horns and harsh percussive boom-ba-dooms that trample the sweet strings, there was something there that caused the vast cosmos to cohere and enter my guts like a living thing. This vague something and everything in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Mahler told me that I ought to turn my life into a risky, emotional, brave story overflowing with love and wonder.

Mahler’s looming, spinning galaxies of awe instantly vanished each time I swiped my card and beeped into work. I was full of stories of poets whose sheer genius allowed them to screw anything, get into bar fights, and make halfhearted but beautiful suicide attempts. Beep. I was never going to be that guy. Beep. I was on the clock, working the 1 p.m-to-10 p.m. shift. Two 15-minute breaks. One hour unpaid for dinner. I was a time-card swiping retail worker. I figured that nothing of interest would happen from beep to beep until I eventually died, unloved, of poor health insurance.

Then the Philadelphia orchestra went on strike. Angry cellists and flautists marched in circles in front of Orchestra Hall. Symphonies were canceled. And like the dawning bleats of Mahler’s big horns, there was a rustle of unrest at my Borders, too. The basement break room of store #21 included a nest of secret revolutionaries: Wobblies, card-carrying members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Now, as Borders dissipates and 10,000 people lose their jobs, I can only wonder what might have happened in 1996 if they had embraced their idealistic young Wobblies, the final kicks of life in an already dying chain.

 

Like every new hire at Borders, I had started on the bottom rung, stacking the Hobby/Collectibles section. Seniority at Borders came not with higher pay or better hours, but with the chance to rise through the ranks of sections from Hobby/Collectibles, through Computers, to Children, and finally to the big leagues of New Fiction or Poetry.

It was a lovely time, the mid-1990s, to be a socialist. Not merely a socialist but a Wobbly.

My co-workers and I wanted to spend our days surrounded by the books we loved. Shannon, the most senior nerd among my co-workers, memorized every Terry Pratchett book and spent much of his day in heated discussion of Discworld with the denizens of his Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. Sometimes he pretended to be the orangutan librarian of the Discworld’s Unseen University. This was humorous to an extremely small section of the clientele. Emily, the Jewish Studies doctorate, wanted someday to stack the Judaica section. She was on her way to being near the subject she loved. She got kicked up to the Computer section when I arrived and took over the unholy mess that was Hobby/Collectibles.

Back then, the internet was barely a blip on society’s radar except as a purveyor of very slow pornography. With no eBay, Borders customers who happened to collect Hummel figures or rare coins or Depression-era glassware came to the Hobby/Collectibles section, pulled the appropriate book from its slot where I had painstakingly placed it flush with all of its neighbors, looked up what a mint condition Hummel Angel Candle Holder was worth, and then dropped the book on the floor or left it in the café for me to re-stock. I would gather the books and start again, trying to get each book flush with all the others. This was of major importance and something I was told set us apart from Barnes and Noble. Our books were shelved smoothly. Barnes and Noble was crenelated chaos.

The elegant shelving policy didn’t save Borders from ruin. Today, the chain is in liquidation. The Philadelphia Orchestra is bankrupt. Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s. The Hobby/Collectibles section has disappeared into the cloud.

 

For Borders, which first opened in 1971, the end began when it was sold to K-Mart in 1992. By the time I got there, three years later, only a few of the stalwart Borders believers remained to try to change the store from within. Within a few months of my arrival, Neil gave up and retired to play in his band, The Human Rays. I don’t know if the band was real or Neil just thought it was amusing to retire and join The Human Rays. His friendly management style didn’t jibe with the new owners.

Neil’s replacement was a guy named Doug. Doug had the personality of a pair of brown corduroy pants. We all hated Doug. We hated him because he was not Neil. Underneath that hatred was a hatred of what Doug represented: corporate masters and the loss of our own identity. With Neil we labored under the impression that we were cool. Under Doug we just labored.

We were all called, one by one, to Doug’s basement office where he asked unanswerable questions like:

“What can I do to make things better at the store?”

It was like trying to explain to plain yogurt what it’s like to be strawbana flavored. Poor Doug was an immigrant from the land of Blue Light Specials. He was now in charge of a funky bookstore where most of the workers held advanced degrees in esoteric subjects like Marxist Geography and Women’s Studies. How could we tell him that his very presence made us feel bad about ourselves? Not because of anything that he did but because of the fundamental essence of who he was. He was a boss, plain and simple. His K-Mart management style sucked all of the romance out of our bookstore and made us realize that what we really did was push product. You’d think that running the gauntlet of Howard Stern and Michael Crichton displays each day would have clued me in.

Doug cut our hours from 40 a week to 37. This was to avoid having to pay overtime. Doug made workers change sections based not on seniority but on how much he liked them or how much they seemed to fit the K-Mart/Borders/Waldenbooks mold. Doug stopped letting us take home whatever book we wanted as long as we promised to bring it back unscuffed. Doug told our security guy to kick out the homeless men. Doug made us clean up the crap in the bathroom.

Then the Wobblies struck. Our revolution started, like so many do, with a killer party in someone’s basement apartment.

 

We were unlikely candidates for unionization. There was Carlotta Tendant, a famed drag queen who introduced me to gay bingo. There was Jim, a crackhead who dated my best friend and stole her television set. There was a scraggly blond pot-smoker who changed his name from Bill to Bile. Bile traveled the world from Borders to Borders. He had just worked for Borders in Hawaii for a year. Back then, wandering bands of Borders gypsies traveled the world in an underground Borders network. This was a hidden perq that I’m sure was squashed by the armies of Dougs that descended upon the chain.

It is an untruth universally accepted that unions are for the lazy. Stack that book? Sorry, I’m union now, you’ll need a form signed in triplicate, and also I have back problems so I can’t pick up any book over 1.2 lbs, and by the way, you can’t fire me, and I’ll be taking the next month off for paid vacation.

All I knew of Wobblies—the Industrial Workers of the World—I learned from reading Kurt Vonnegut, who had a great affection for fellow Indianan and socialist state Sen. Eugene V. Debs. Debs was one of the founders, in 1905, of the Wobblies. He’s the guy who said: “As long as there is a lower class I am in it, as long as there is a criminal element I am of it, as long as there is a soul in prison I am not free.”

Shannon the sci-fi book stacker recited this quote to some of us sitting around in his basement while Bile hit the bongos. It turned out that Shannon was the socialist rabble-rouser among us. Shannon had an identical twin brother who was busy radicalizing Starbucks. I was happy to see that my most attractive co-workers also came to this basement Wobbly party. When Miriam, who stacked the history section, mentioned the Haymarket riots, I pretended that I knew what she was talking about because she was cute. Then Dan, the sometime-country singer, started a rousing version of the “Popular Wobbly.”

Oh, the “bull,” he went wild over me,
And he held his gun where everyone could see,
He was breathing rather hard
When he saw my union card
He went wild, simply wild over me.

It was a lovely time, the mid-1990s, to be a socialist. Not merely a socialist but a Wobbly. As we went wild over ourselves, we imagined grungy, disillusioned, laboring twentysomethings rioting in the streets, running from jackboots with billy clubs, going to jail after being accused of extreme awesomeness, singing protest songs in crowds of supporters, being a part of something real and true and wonderful instead of drowning alone in the mundane corporate nightmare of K-Mart/Borders. OK, it was the orangutan/sci-fi guy’s basement and we were all pretty much too young to know what the hell we were doing, but we craved our own importance—the way we felt in college when we were stroked for being smart and well-read—and were scared by our actual insignificance, an insignificance that Doug encouraged in us as we sold loads of Howard Stern’s Private Parts and counted the seconds of our 15-minute breaks. We wanted what everyone wants, especially when they are young. We wanted to simply, please God, not be a total loser. And the IWW provided us with a strong and purposeful vision of ourselves. I came to the basement because it was a party; I walked away sidestream stoned, tipsy, and a Wobbly. As I stumbled home, united with my brothers and sisters in the orchestra union, I shouted to the rain-glistening, cobblestone alleyways of Philadelphia:

“As long as there are loose books I am stacking them, as long as there is an X generation I am of it, where there are Humanities majors making espressos I am drinking them, and as long as Miriam is a Wobbly, I shall be too! Boo-rah!”

 

We were a bunch of low-wage misfits who joined the union of miners, Pullman car operators, and auto workers. Perhaps the heroes of the labor struggles of the early 20th century were just young kids like us, but with dirtier faces. Our normality, the average track our lives had taken, suddenly seemed like strength. We didn’t choose greatness. We humbly accepted it as a circumstance of being working class in a system where education didn’t guarantee a living wage. We were energized, and a little afraid when Borders hired the law firm of Jackson Lewis to break us.

To their credit, they never called us lazy. It is an untruth universally accepted that unions are for the lazy. Stack that book? Sorry, I’m union now, you’ll need a form signed in triplicate, and also I have back problems so I can’t pick up any book over 1.2 lbs, and by the way, you can’t fire me, and I’ll be taking the next month off for paid vacation. Borders or the law firm of Jackson Lewis (with offices conveniently located everywhere) had no need to sling such mud at us—it was already the solid, accepted ground of every union fight, at least as it played out in the media. We were mostly young, a bit naive perhaps, but never lazy or greedy. On the contrary, we wanted to work more and better and with more investment in the company.

The first salvo from the team of Jackson Lewis was a pizza party in the café. It was true that we could be lured pretty much anywhere by free pizza, especially if you paid us our hourly wage to eat it with you. By happenstance, Borders vice-president of human resources Anne Kubek was there to talk to us and address our gripes. A vice president? Now we felt very important. The VP had a kind face and a gentle demeanor. She told us that with a union between us we couldn’t have such nice chats in the future. Free pizza? Union won’t allow that. She could address our issues now, directly, like a family discussing problems over dinner. Would you invite a stranger to the table? And allow him to make decisions for you? No. No you wouldn’t.

A few days later, a professional masseuse arrived to work on our tired book-stacking shoulders during paid massage breaks. It was another of those little things that Borders could do for its workers. But with a union between the masseuse’s professionally sensual hands and our hard-working backs? No way.

The Borders management adopted the stance of a stricken dog. It was as if we had whapped them on the nose with a newspaper for no reason and they looked up at us with confused and soulful puppy eyes and asked: “Why? Why would you do such a thing?” Then when we turned our backs, they ate our slippers.

 

The union vote loomed the way the big horns and drums haunt the last movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The bass and snare drums of resolution and release intrude upon repetitive, slowly pulsing string days of working the cash register, stacking the books, and helping customers find or order every Barbra Streisand biography ever written, of which there are more than I had ever assumed. I walked down to the break room and—bwang-boom! —there was a typewritten letter of support for our union effort from Noam Chomsky pinned to the door. Thank you, Brother Chomsky! This Romantic movement of our youthful symphony will surely end in kisses and celebration.

The look in their eyes said that our dreams of respect and fair wages were silly, unimportant things. They noticed us and politely attempted to hide their glee, like little boys caught playing with themselves.

The flip side to the charm offensive of pizza and masseurs was an anti-union rumor offensive. They fed us the counterintuitive notion that by voting union we would be giving up our rights. They told us that voting union was like writing a blank check to the union boss. Who knew how much of our wages would be garnished? Someone planted the vague threat of mass firings. They made sure we knew that the top union boss in the country made over $100 grand a year. They even told us the entirely true and foreseeable outcome: that a yes-union vote would mean months and months of legal bickering. This was something that the lawyers were very good at doing. By the time the negotiations over every little thing came to an end, most of us would have moved on to other jobs. In sum, voting union meant garnished wages, fewer hours (once the vote goes through, nothing can be changed, like reinstating the 40-hour work week) and possible firing, shuffling, or being chased out of town.

How we responded to the “gilded pizza” offensive depended entirely upon how much we felt we needed the $6.50-an-hour job at Borders. We were not all drag queens, artists, post-doctorates, and addicts, happy to crash on someone’s couch. On the staff were people with families. They had to balance their anger at management for cutting some hours with the possibility of losing all of their hours.

 

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony ends with half of a bang and no closure. It builds and builds and then cuts short of a resolution, the ending supplied by silence and our idea of the big cymbal crash that should be there but isn’t. That was how voting day came and went. It was remarkably like voting for class president in elementary school. I circled yes on a piece of paper and slipped it into a little box. I went back to the cash register and prayed to whatever force for good there was in the universe that nobody would ask for our free wrapping service (I was horrible at it) and also that we would win the vote. We lost, barely. 25-20.

We folded up Noam Chomsky’s letter and prepared to drink the night away.

That evening Shannon, Bile, and I sadly marched down an otherwise empty sidewalk toward a bar where we could drown our idealism in shots of Jameson. We saw Doug and two assistant managers heading our way. I have forgotten kisses and arguments and days both happy and sad that have changed the track of my life, but I can never forget the elated look on the faces of the managers that evening. I have long wondered why the image haunts me. I guess it feels like losing. The look in their eyes said that our dreams of respect and fair wages were silly, unimportant things. They noticed us and politely attempted to hide their glee, like little boys caught playing with themselves. Why should they hide their happiness? It didn’t matter anymore. We didn’t matter. We acknowledged each other with muffled grunts. All night we drank to forget the unabashed thrill we saw upon the manager’s faces.

 

A few months after the union vote, the Center City mix of vagrants, oddballs, and occasional Terry Gross sightings doesn’t seem so charming or interesting.

“Moon, June and spoooooon!” squeals the old man.

Nobody is around to save me, so I endure the advances of the old man as he tries to pick me up by reciting poetry in German. Apparently he is some kind of Goethe scholar.

I run to stack the Hobby/Collectibles section, a place not cool enough for old men to recite erotic German poetry. The old man tries to woo Carlotta Tendant, who is much better at spurning advances than I am. Sitting atop the pile of Hobby/Collectibles re-stacks is a poorly edited, self-published romance novel called The Mists of Iseminger Street. This book is good for a laugh in the break room, where its torrid, misspelled romance is met with happy derision. It turns up all over the store. Apparently the author sneaks in and puts his book on random shelves, thinking we won’t notice. I suppose he wishes that someday a customer will try to buy it and then his book would magically become a real book. But the book is off the grid. It won’t show up in any computer. It won’t scan. I wish I were like this book, I think.

I walk by the Travel section. I run my fingers down the smoothly stacked spines of all the countries in the world you could travel to on a shoestring. I stop on Lonely Planet’s Micronesia travel guide. Micronesia? I haven’t heard of it... but, why not go? Why stay within the borders of my life?

If you enter with an open mind, a good bookstore can stuff all kinds of ideas in there.

 

After we lost, there were no more massages. No more free pizza. No more family meetings with Borders bigwigs. Miriam was fired. In front of the store, people protested her firing. Michael Moore led the protesters inside so he could do a scheduled reading without crossing the picket line. Miriam didn’t get her job back. VP Kubek went on to author a confidential manual called Union Awareness for Borders Managers. Borders Group Inc. didn’t care for young weirdoes dreaming up revolutions in their break rooms. Shannon quit. The Wobblies organized Starbucks. Amazon stopped being a geographical term. I went to Micronesia.

It’s sad to see the stores shuttering. But the Borders worth having disappeared a long time ago.

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