Monday, 18 February 2013

Last Century, When I Worked At Borders Bookstore, And How a Circa 1938 Remington Portable Came In Handy.

I was a founding staff-member (is there such a thing?) at the first Borders bookstore that opened in Australia back in 1998. This was an exciting time for booklovers. The range of titles that this store carried (40,000 of them) was staggering. Of course, there was the inevitable backlash from smaller bookstores that were against a large, multinational corporation coming in and undercutting their pricing. I never concerned myself with this aspect of the job. I was just happy to see people reading, but I got a little tired of some of them coming in and saying "Aww, wow, it's like the shop in that Tom Hanks movie!" ("You've Got Mail", Dir: Nora Ephron,1998).
Mind you, I also saw some poor behavior displayed by the general public. Thankfully, this was a rare occurrence. But here's one instance that I'll always remember.

The store carried a large array of magazines on a dizzying number of subjects. I never realised how many dog magazines there are. One night, I was working at the Information Desk near the Magazine/Periodicals Section. I saw a lady in her early Sixties pick up a sealed copy of US Vogue magazine and tear a finger through the plastic before standing there to leaf through the magazine for a few minutes. She then put the mag down and proceeded to walk away. I just had to approach her.

"I'm sorry, but did you just open that sealed magazine?", I asked.

"No", was her reply, delivered with a level gaze.

"You didn't just now rip open the plastic and take the magazine out?"

"No", she repeated.

"It's just that we can't sell it now that it's been torn open." This was a Direct Air Freight Copy which retailed for fifteen bucks back in '98.

I was dumbfounded. And there wasn't much more I could say or do without running the risk that she would make a complaint about me. Grudgingly, I let it slide, turned and walked back to the Info Desk where I stood and kept an eye on her till she left the store at a nearby exit.
If you're reading this in the Internet Room at the Nursing Home, Madam, just remember- I saw you do it, you lying, ill-mannered cow.


A lady came in once with a Shar-Pei. Normally, we don't let people bring dogs into the store unless it's an assistance animal like a guide-dog or Krypto. But this was one cool looking dog. Of course, for three and a half grand, you'd want it to be. Compact and muscular, this dog had a better body than I do.

A man was paying for some books at the register once. His son appeared alongside him with a couple of skateboarding magazines. His Father said to him; "Why don't you get something with a little more substance. Maybe expand your horizons a little."
Then he turned to look at me; "At least he's reading", I responded. The man shrugged his shoulders and they both left.

A nine year-old girl came in to purchase the latest Harry Potter Hardback edition (Goblet of Fire) that had been released three days earlier. She was buying this copy for a friend and said to me that she had already read it. It's a 630+ page book!!! In three days!!!

One man came in every day at around 11:30am, grabbed a copy of Mario Puzo's "Omerta", and then took a seat on one of the armchairs scattered throughout the store and started reading for about an hour. He finished the book in two weeks. And he didn't pay a dime for it. The tight-ass.

Another young guy, whom I got to know as a real pain in the ass, would come in at about 11:00am when I was starting a shift, and he would still be in the store at 8:00pm when I was finishing my shift. He once asked me to print out William Shakespeare's complete works in print. Looking up William Shakespeare on the Global Books In Print Database would bring up 25 pages of very small print. I told him it was an impossibility. 

I worked in the Reference Section of the store. That's where the espionage, film and screenwriting books were. Unfortunately, it was also where all the computer books were kept and, by early 1999, there was a mad rush on sales of books about how to survive the Millennium Bug. Man, people whipped themselves up into a frenzy over that. "Oh no, the calendars on the world's computers only go up to 1999. As soon as it hits midnight on December 31st, they'll switch over to 1899 and all the computers in the world will crash!"

I spent 25 minutes searching for this book on Fencing (the sport, not the home renovation) for a customer and, after I found it and handed it over to him, he wanted to give me a twenty dollar tip.
I, of course, declined. The book itself retailed for $13.95.

"Memoirs Of A Geisha" was the biggest-selling fiction title during the time that I worked there. 

I was transferred over to the Genre Fiction Section. I didn't want to move to that area, but I settled in soon enough. Within a couple of months, they made me the Genre Fiction Supervisor.
I had been asked, on six separate occasions, if I would like to be an actual Manager of this department. I declined every time. This is because I had seen every Manager in the store complain about the extra hours and workload that they were required to put into the job. They were miserable. It was not a club I wanted to join.


They decided to do a promotion regarding the Top 100 Crime Novels Of All Time. I was tasked with coming up with the list and preparing a window display as well. Coming up with the list was slightly tricky, but I made certain that all the usual suspects were included. The Agatha Christies and Conan Doyles were there. So was Chandler and Hammett, and even James M. Cain. I threw in Tom Clancy to cover the Techno-Thriller genre. And Patricia Cornwell was selling like crazy back then, too. Everybody loved her forensic crime novels. Michael Connelly was also a big seller back then. It only got tricky when I had to include some of the lesser-known or forgotten authors who were a big deal back in their day. Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham for example, who are perhaps not as well known as Miss Christie. And much of Eric Ambler's output was not in print in the late Nineties. That's a travesty in itself.
One of the other staff kept badgering me to include Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" in the list, but I just couldn't see it. I felt that, whenever one thought of crime novels, "Crime and Punishment" was not the first title that came to mind.
Plus the fact that it's terribly pretentious to include that book in this list.

Then came the window display. I thought this would be a little easier. And then, as I began to think about it a little more, it started to get a little more complicated.
This was my plan;

* A knife with a tag tied to it with the words "Exhibit A" written on it in bold Texta (Magic Marker).
* An open brief-case with a Manila Folder sitting in it. Stencilled across the cover would be the words "TOP SECRET' and "YOUR EYES ONLY".

I was soon told by management that I couldn't use a knife. Dammit, okay, how about a big pair of scissors, then?
............That would be fine.
One of the ladies in admin was married to a cop, so she was able to get me a length of police tape with "DO NOT CROSS" emblazoned all over it. Nice.

And then, I fished out the old Remington Portable typewriter that I had bought in an antiques store around 1987.

I no longer have this typewriter, since I got myself a Remette. So, for the purposes of this demonstration, I'll be using my Smith-Corona Standard. It's of a similar vintage, so it should give off the same vibe.

Next was what to put in the typewriter. It would sit in the middle of the window display to draw the eye. I wanted to hook as many passers-by as I could. There was no actual point in typing anything on the Remington, since it would be too small to read from outside the store window. That's where the Courier New font off Microsoft Word came in. Say what you want about Bill Gates, but I have absolutely no problem with him. He and his wife Melinda set up a foundation to donate 1 billion dollars to charity over the next twenty years, so until some hacker punk comes along and does the same, they should leave Microsoft alone. And this is coming from a guy who's currently using Mozilla Firefox because his Internet Explorer 9 browser is giving him some serious grief this past week.

Anyway, I fired up my IBM Thinkpad and got to work. And this is what I came up with. Although, truth be told, I made some minor grammatical changes to the original when I read it over the weekend, and yes, I did indeed spell 'Governor' incorrectly. But we've had 30+ degree days here in Melbourne and I just replaced all the ink cartridges in my printer and can't be bothered to correct the spelling error.
Anyway, here's what I did for the display back in 1999;

Gee, that second-last picture throws the whole effect off a little, but you get the gist of it, I hope. The tricky part for me was coming up with lines of a certain style that, although they don't appear in any of these crime novels, would at least sound as though they did. Some of them are cliches of a particular type of crime genre. Actually, the "Right full rudder" line was probably taken from Tom Clancy's "The Hunt For Red October". I couldn't, for the life of me, come up with something of my own. And, thinking about it now, perhaps the "We could get hanged for this, baby" line may have been out of "Double Indemnity", but I'm not sure. It's at least twenty years since I last read it. I hope not, though. It bugged me no end that I had to use the Clancy line.

Once the sheets were printed out, they were taped together and then the top-most sheet was stuck to the wall in the window display. I recall taking some photos of the finished product, but it was a sunny afternoon and my shadow obscured the display.

All in all, the store manager was happy with it. He was a great guy to work for and probably one main reason why I stayed working at Borders for two years. Laughed at all of my jokes, too.

I was reasonably happy with it. I think I managed to capture the feel of a variety of crime genres, from police procedurals to spy novels (both Bond and otherwise) to assassination thrillers and Hard-Boiled Detective fiction from its Golden Age.

It did end up taking me more time and trouble than I thought it would, but it was a pleasant diversion from the usual aspects of the job.
And yeah, using the old Remington provided the necessary atmosphere required.

Thanks for reading!

***Typecasts done with a circa 1955 Remington Quiet-Riter to give this a Mickey Spillane kind of touch***

P.S.- Hey Richard, his name was Nazzareno, but nobody in this country could remember or pronounce it, so he was nick-named 'Toby'. 


  1. Great stories. And thanks for sharing the Name -- it's a fine one!

  2. Thanks for sharing all these anecdotes with us!

    I actually thought the quotes were real quotes from real books.

  3. Oh, this has been a great little trip down memory lane.

    You worked in borders? I'm certain our paths have indeed crossed in the past. I remember getting a copy of Caleb Carr's 'The Angel of Darkness' from there, and I discovered that it had a slab of 80 missing pages that had been substituted with a copy of the prior 80 pages. I remember being served by a tallish, quite fit chap that was just a bit older than me, who ordered in a replacement copy.

    If that wasn't you, I at least got good service from your co-workers.

    Couple of great stories there. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Tall and fit, huh? Doesn't sound like me. I'm five-eleven and thin. I remember that book by Carr. With the Industrial Age picture on the cover and the thin lettering. It was definitely in my section back then. Very steady seller, too.

    2. I did say tallish. But taller than 5'11"... Oh well!
      And yeah, that's the book. Well written, with great attention historical facts. I enjoyed it.