I Can’t Help But Feel Sorry for Borders…Employees

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Don't worry, in a week it's going to be 50%.

Not so long ago, I was part of a retail chain that was in the early stages of death.

I got cut, ostensibly as part of a batch of 1100 laid off from our (new) parent company.

It kinda hurt, but I got seven weeks of severance, eventually got a job that placed me where I needed to be, met some terrific people and obviously – through Providence and hard work – landed on my feet. Arguably, that moment in the timeline put me on the path that put me where I needed to be to become a father.

But boy, it sucked at the time. I got s**t-canned at 4:30 on a Thursday (I seem to remember it was a Thursday), with no prospects for a new job and no real skill set to take into a new career and some awesome credit card debt. My girlfriend of three years had dumped me over the phone mere months before and I’d had to break a lease on an apartment that I loved as a result.

What sucked most was that it was completely out of my control. I think that it was the first lesson I learned, as a result, not to take things we can’t control personally. It’s still hard to do, but on occasion I think back to that moment and realize that it’ll work out OK.

Empathy

And with the recent news that Borders is tanking completely, apparently Not Too Big Not to Fail, I think about the employees. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek critique back in March of Bailout Fever with Borders as my mocking board, but seriously, my heart breaks for the employees.

Not just the people who help you look for books. The cleaning crews. The stock room people. The manager who was forced to work for six or seven days a week every holiday season because they couldn’t resolve what they were told to spend on payroll with how many hourly employees they had to put on the floor. All of them.

Part of the reason is, of course, that I’m a soft-hearted guy. I’ve even been teased (not directly) by friends and worse (I can only imagine) by family. I don’t actually mind that, because I don’t ever want to lose any of my compassion for others, even if it means I look like a wuss. I just had to learn to live with my rep; I like the fact that I can cry at certain moments in Super 8, or can’t bring myself to play Grand Theft Auto anymore because of its disturbing quality of emotional deadening.

And so, while we can talk about how Borders didn’t adapt, its prices were too high, or how eReaders are making book stores less relevant moving forward, when I received the e-mail to ‘Rewards Plus’ customers that the store was closing out, it made me sad to think of all those employees who now end up without income. Oh, and yeah, sorry Michigan – another company headquartered in your state is going under.

Sure, they had time to look elsewhere, but for whatever reason they didn’t find anything else. Maybe they thought Borders would end up riding out the bankruptcy storm. Maybe in an economy where “recovery” means 9.2% unemployment, they couldn’t find something else. Slim pickin’s out there, as it were.

What terrible news for them.

Monolithic Myopia

It’s also why I bristle when people assign a “them” to a company during bad news and dissociate it from the employees. We seem to focus on the “Big Wigs” and think of these companies as monolithic parasites when they make bad decisions. Netflix’s terrible decision to abuse its customers and take too much advantage of its current position, as Blockbuster and Tower Records did before it, will have an impact on its bottom line. But that bottom line takes its toll on the people who work for them.

If the people running a big chain make a big series of bad choices or doesn’t adapt to the market forces, then the people who work there get crappy news.

While I’m not going to go off the deep end and call for Borders to get a bailout or keep Netflix’s online streaming service through a 60% rate hike (Feeding Family > Online Streaming), I can still acknowledge that the human aspect is the one that bothers me most. While the nature of a free market is that some will fail, I’ve been caught in the wake and it sucks; I doubt that too many of the current employees will get a severance package, either.

Additionally

The local Borders has a Seattle’s Best café attached to it, and it’s always been the landing spot for “Special Breakfast,” a Sunday tradition for more than two years.

There have been a lot of great memories there. I can trace Roo growing up through those Sundays.

While nothing stays the same, I can still regret when a place with fantastic emotional attachments and memories goes away forever. It’s one of the more unpleasant aspects of time passing away.

So while I’m perfectly happy just getting Kindle books from here on out (with exceptions), I think anyone should still take a moment and hope that things start to turn around, and quickly, for everyone.

Otherwise, a whole lot more of us will be able to empathize with Borders’ employees, too.

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