Borders' Denouement

Ding dong, the Borders Books and Music superstore in Westwood is dead. This week, as the store prepared to shut down, the stages of grief were in full effect: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and shopping. Note the big yellow signs ("Entire store for sale!" and "Nothing held back!"). Note the blank stares, the arms straining under the weight of baskets loaded with deeply discounted novels, DVDs, CDs, stuffed animals and all the other hoo-ha that passes for bookstore merchandise these days. Furnishings, fixtures and pretty much anything not bolted down — and then some of that stuff, too, if you want it — are up for grabs, including the display tables, the cash boxes (sans cash), the magazine racks and shelves and chairs.

"It's getting smaller and smaller every day," says a customer, sifting through the remainder of the remaindered books.

The Borders employees with the most to lose (i.e., the full-timers) were busy assuming the fetal position. One of them, Camilla Ostrin, had reached acceptance.

"It's an interesting-slash-horrible time," she says. "Most of us are, I'd say, upper-lower-class."

Only half own cars. The other half bus or walk in. As a floor-level bookseller, you're expected to know a lot but toil for little. Of the 30 or so total employees, she knows of just three who have secured other jobs within the Borders universe.

Ostrin has worked at the Westwood location for 12 years and is in the same boat as the rest of the Borders lifers. She does not know what she will do after the store closes. She does not have a new gig lined up. That's no big deal to the part-time college kids schlepping in from nearby UCLA. But entering the job market in your late 40s and 50s, in this economy, is difficult, to say the least.

"Most of us are introverted and bookish, which only adds to the problem," she says.

Partly, she can't make definitive plans. The company is giving them severance pay, but employees have not yet been told exactly when their employment ends. Liquidation will continue until all the merchandise is gone, and when that finally happens is anyone's guess.

The protracted demise is helping Ostrin gradually acclimate to her new reality, at least. Empty bookshelves are the saddest part. She's used to seeing them full. Customers likely would agree; they don't seem to understand that the store isn't being restocked, that the new Obama calendars aren't coming in, or that once the Paperchase journals are gone, they're gone.

People, of course, deal with loss in myriad ways. Ostrin is expressive, articulate. But sales associate Daniel, the sweet, quiet one everyone called "the book gnome," who'd been with the company for 16 years, just shakes his head at the thought of his future plans.

Anyone with eyes could have seen the painful slowness at this particular Borders for some time now, where people sit for hours and hours with a cup of coffee but buy nothing. Consequently, in the last seven years, Ostrin reasons, corporate strategy has "been more about sales than about books." Though truly, when has it ever not been about sales?

In retail, as in life, however, what goes around comes around. Remember the Sisterhood Bookstore, which once sat directly across the street? For 27 years it operated at the intersection of Westwood and Rochester.

Until Borders put it out of business.

Borders reportedly sent spies into the tiny shop to write down titles of books, then sold them for less, and squeezed and squeezed until the smaller store was no more. Sisterhood moved out. A Box Brothers packing-supply outlet moved in. The book biz, man — brutal.

That was more than a decade ago, and Adele Wallace, who owned the shop with her sister Simone, is now 68 and working as a librarian at the L.A. Public Library's Fairfax branch. Asked how she feels about the closure of her former nemesis, Wallace is silent for a moment.

"Frankly," she says, in her sweetest grandma voice, "I feel like dancing on their grave."

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