Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Back Pages

Under the "STORE CLOSING" sign rested a stack of books with hemorrhage-red covers bearing the title "Too Big to Fail."

The irony had to force a smile.

borders-store-closing When Borders Book Shop opened in my hometown in 1992, it  ushered in an era of oxymoron retail -- the cozy superstore. It offered 100,000 titles, many at discount prices, and featured comfy earth-toned couches and chairs along with a then cutting-edge treat -- a coffee bar. They might have called their java Seattle’s Best but usually it tasted more like something that had passed through Seattle Slew.

Borders enraged area owners of small, independent bookstores. Volume dealing of volumes! How gauche! A few of these little shops closed quickly without much fanfare, including the tiny Barrett Bookstore in that same shopping plaza. I had treaded Barrett’s industrial-white tile floors many times in those previous years, searching mostly for my school-required literary classics as well as the necessary CliffsNotes that explained why, for example, Moby Dick should enrapture rather than task and heap me. (Damn you, Kirrrrrrk – I mean, MelVILLLLLE!)

Ahab may not have gotten his revenge, but surviving independents did.

Earlier this year Borders' parent filed for bankruptcy, done in by even bigger retailers like Target and However, I think even those early chain-store foes would agree any bookstore going under, regardless of ownership, is not a time for gloating. Forget the intellectual aspect of it; people have special bonds with bookstores and, (uses cranky old-timer voice) back in my day, those melodious places where we bought our Victrola 78s. These were shelters where you went in your times of joy or need or loneliness to see your old friends and meet new ones who would always accept you into their magical world.

However, I had other reasons to feel wistful about this past weekend's closing. Yes, one is the fear of yet another CVS/pharmacy or -- worse -- bank moving into Borders' shell. Most have to do with my growing up, to some degree, within those brick walls.

For 25 years prior to it being Borders, for my entire lifetime at that point, this place had been a supermarket, the locally owned and operated GranCentral. Not only was it the market my mother hauled me to nearly every week for groceries as a kid, but it was also the one where I lost my innocence to the working world.

For nine months following my 16th birthday, I donned a paper-thin GranCentral green jacket and served.

I combed the parking lot in rain, cold and heat gathering wire-framed carts and cursing the lazy shoppers who abandoned them.

I sorted and stacked sticky piles of returned bottles in the basement, building a fort from the filled cartons where I would eat my lunch and read the latest copies of People or US Weekly.

One time, I spent three hours on a Sunday restocking the freezer aisles without wearing gloves. I recall that day whenever my fingertips go numb, as they sometimes do, when the mercury just barely dips below 50. Consequently, from November to April, My Love often refers to me as "Mitten Boy."

At GranCentral, I learned about unions from the cut they took from my meager check. I also learned about them from my fellow teen wage slave, Pasqual, an impossibly scrawny and heavily accented Frenchman who would skulk and complain until he got his mandated break so he could go outside for a smoke.

I discovered profit margins when I found a pricing sheet that showed how much those rolls we baked in the deli really cost.

I also figured out how to use a box cutter to make end-cap displays without slicing into the product or my fingers. Well, most of the time.

But my best memory (outside of my one date with this totally fine cashier who dumped me with barely the pleasure of gliding over her rolling hills) is of the full-time guys who worked in the deli department. They tended to mismark the prices on our sandwiches so it didn’t cut too much into our meager pockets. On some Sundays after the freshly clipped coupon crowd thinned, they’d cook an extra rotisserie chicken or errantly make an extra cheese steak for whoever had the shift.

For years afterward, I’d run into some of the deli guys around town or while they were working at their second jobs. There was Red, who was also a typewriter repairman; Mark, an organist at a local church; and Mike the Greek who, well, was Greek. They always remembered who I was just like they always remembered their regular customers' orders.

After waiting in line for several minutes to make my final purchases from the local Borders, I helped the cashier peel off the dozen or so price stickers from my new books and then pack them into plastic bags. I asked about her plans.

"This is it for me," she said. "And I'm doing my book shopping online from now on."

On my way out, I took solace in the fact I didn't need a shopping cart to get all these tomes back to the minivan. The thought of some poor kid slogging through the parking lot because of my laziness, to this day, still gives me pause.

* * *

THING 1 UPDATE: Rash improvement

The first IV infusions of steroids went well over the weekend. Her rash is already looking less angry, as My Love says. This weekend will be two more doses of IV steroids plus a 6-hour-long infusion of IVIG. Oy.

Thoughts and prayers welcome as are your donations to Cure JM to help all kids with juvenile myositis diseases.

Cheers … U


  1. I stil, feel that way when I go to the grocery store. It was once Rich's departments store, and I worked right next door at the old "general store" for 3 years.

    Then there's the grocery store by my sister's that was once the drive in movie theatre.

    Time keeps marchin' on...

  2. I *love* it when the deli me remember me :)

    Just as you pause because of the grocery carts, I pause because of clothes left in a dressing room... Just can't do it! Too many years of collecting and refolding after others.

    Glad to hear Thing 1 is starting to show a little improvement!

  3. That was supposed to be deli MEN :)

  4. Michael's Pharmacy. Replacing the cellophane Valentine's sleeve with the Easter one on the boxes of unsold Whitman's Samplers. Delivering Widow Nicelady's prescriptions on my way home. Flipping through Vogue and Cosmo by the register on a slow spring evening, waiting for a certain college student to come in for gum. Sigh.

    Finally succumbed a few years to the CVS down the street....

    Glad to hear about Thing 1. Good thoughts for the weekend.

  5. Yep, deli men are the salt of the earth.

  6. change!

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral




  7. Bittersweet memories, and a great telling of the tale.

    Great slice of life, man.

  8. For me it was the old drive-in restaurant. When Chez Mickey Dees and the BK Lounge opened, with indoor seating, we lost tons of customers. The old place closed, changed hands, and for some strange reason is still alive and kicking. Not the same as it was but still making a go of it.

    Biggest loss in my adult life was the local office supply store. They had one of every damn thing imaginable. Closed their doors years ago. Now if I need a single 9x12 envelope I have to buy 50.

    So glad to hear Thing 1 is improving. May your Sunday rock n rock.

  9. All the Borders around here have closed up shop too, although the B&N seems to be doing ok.

    We also think we have too many CVS and banks. And dry cleaners, believe it or not. What's with that?

    Thoughts & prayers headed your way...

  10. Thoughts and prayers being cosmically sent your family's way, good sir.


    Also, the SCAVENGERS buying random books just because they were 3$ were hilarious.

    I bought seven.

    I will miss Borders for its ability to make me need to poop every time I would go there to browse. Sadly, now Barnes and Nobles is my only laxative left.

    Well that and movie stores.

    And record stores.

    And actual laxatives.

  11. No CVS or bank coming... rumor has it to be a Zumba studio! Enough people Zumba to fill a space that size??? What am I missing?

    Popular hope seems to be for a Trader Joe's. Rumor has it that TJ doesn't think there is enough parking.

    Feel free to petition them to change their minds!

  12. Everybody loves a totally fine cashier chick.

    I've noticed a few grocery stores where the cart fetch kids have robotic, er, motorized help to bring the carts back up to the store front. Perhaps the robotic uprising will start in aisle 12.

  13. Fantastical trip down memory lane!
    So glad to hear the rash is better and things appear to be working!!

  14. I loved tripping down memory lane with you, bittersweet as it was. I always get a pang when a bookstore closes because bookstores and libraries are two of my favorite places in the world. I was fortunate that two of the Borders close to my neck of the woods stayed open. I am a frequent visitor.

    I'm glad to hear the rash is retreating and that treatment is working.

  15. When my Borders closed, I cried. The people working there weren't just employees, they were/are friends. I miss 'em. I didn't shop the sale...too much like going through the pockets of a dead friend.

    I say bad words about people who leave carts in the lot. Our grocery store has people to help customers to the car and return carts to the building - if a person can't/doesn't want to return their cart, they can accept the offer of there's no excuse, yet people do it all the time.

    I'm afraid I've even been audibly snarky towards someone when they've left their cart rather than walk fifteen feet to put it back, and am known to collect rogue carts on my way in to the store. It's definitely a peeve...

    Fingers crossed for Thing 1.

    Shade and Sweetwater,

  16. Yeah I stocked up at a couple closing borders here in LA. And the discounted books I got, were only then, after the discount for it closing, the same price I can get them for on Amazon. No wonder I have been buying my books from amazon for the past 10 years. Good bye and good riddance borders!

  17. if they set up a book shop with a coffeebar here, they'd never get me out of it. Poor Mister Chooch would be like that woman I saw in a movie the other day, who had to go down the pub every night to drag her beer-soaked hubby home. Cept I'd be coffee- and booksoaked. Mmmmmmmmm.

  18. My first job, at 16, was stockboy in a large rug store, a la CVS. It was backbreaking awful work and I loved it. Mostly to get out of the house. That building is now a parking lot.

    The closure of bookstores still makes me sad, though I too prefer to shop online rather than hunt thru a huge store with bad signage and pimply rude kids on staff. Holy crap I have become my grandfather...

    Fun post!

  19. I still remember the time when you had pack your own grocery bags because there were no such things as packer boys or so, I remember all the self service while having 2 kids on a grocery store it was hell at that time. I am glad there are lots of helping hands while you are doing your grocery shopping

  20. I have not checked in here for a while since I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are good quality so I guess I will add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend :)

  21. Thoughts & prayers are always with you... Loved this post! I always loved small book stores, but I also adored Borders with their coffee shops inside. My youngest son asked to be taken there one year for his birthday - just me and him for the day, great memories.
    I also worked in a grocery store (Stop & Shop) when I turned 16 but stayed there for years and then went back after my kids were born for extra money. As I was reading, I could just picture the people I worked with so many years ago... you brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for the memories! =)


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