I had a long lunch on Friday with a gifted merchant, a man who has work for several retailers you know and for several developers you would know if you were the sort of person who went shopping for malls rather than in them.
The discussion was fascinating, and much of the information will make for great stories in the Business Times. But one more casual topic we lit upon was bookstores, specifically Borders and Barnes & Noble.
I have always been a bit put off by Borders. The carpet seemed loud and cheap, the decorations and displays garish, the merchandise a little helter skelter. We lived across the street from one in San Diego, and my mother swore by it. But I was always a little overwhelmed by all the middle-aged fanny-pack-type biddies drinking cinnamon lattes in the cafe and listening to Kenny G over in the CD section. (I was 17 at the time, and way too cool for that stuff.) If forced to choose, I would go with the tweedier, more dignified, neater Barnes & Noble, which also happened to be across the street.
But my lunch companion Friday, the merchant, was a big Borders booster. As a student at the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, he met the Border's founders, Tom and Louis Borders, who started their first store there in 1971 and who opened, according to this man, the first book superstore in a suburb of Detroit not long after. The brothers were known for creating warm, inviting places -- with extremely helpful staff. In fact, even as the business grew into a chain, they seemed to be able to retain sharp employees who knew something about the books they were selling and knew how to treat customers.
"To this day, if Barnes & Noble employees can instantly answer your question 15 percent of the time, it will be 60 percent of the time at Borders," the merchant told me. "And the Borders guy will actually go physically show you where the book is. With the Barnes & Noble guy, it's, 'Ohhh, I think maybeeeee .. Aisle 34A ... IGottaGoTakeThisCall...'"
To the merchant, the Borders/Barnes & Noble story is a lot like the Peets/Starbucks story: one has a significant edge in quality, the other is savvier in business. While the college-town folks at Borders are known for superb customer service and smart staff, he said Barnes & Noble, started by hard-knuckle New York businessman Leonard Riggio, is known for negotiating cheaper leases and for its more rapid expansion.
So after lunch, around 4'oclock on Friday, I decided I had to see for myself. I stopped off at the Emeryville Borders to shop.
Now, the book I wanted was by Al Franken, but it just so happened I had just read a great if somewhat unflattering profile of Michael Moore in the New Yorker, so my brain was scrambled.
"Do you have the Michael Moore book?," I asked the customer service clerk, a guy in a Mohawk who looked somewhat snippy and didn't seem exactly eager to help.
"Oh, uh, the Lies and Lying ..."
"That's Al Franken, it's right over here."
On the way over, he warmed up and told me a lot of people made that mistake. He was actually a really nice, helpful guy. But I still felt pretty dumb for mixing up Al Franken and Michael Moore.
Anyway, they had a whole stack of the Franken book. It was $25, $10 more than on Amazon, so I knew I wouldn't be buying. But I was very impressed. Not because he knew where to find an obscure title -- right now Franken's book is number five on the NY Times bestseller list and I'm pretty sure it was number one for a while -- but because exactly one week before, wanting some light reading for a weekend trip to Tahoe, I had hopped into Stacey's on Market Street and they had been clueless about the Franken book.
Stacey's is cherished in San Francisco for its local roots and because it is large but not part of a national chain, like Border's. But you'd never know it was the hometown bookstore for the most liberal large city in America if you walked in and asked:
"Do you have Al Franken's latest book?"
"Frankennnnn ... ? I'm not sure we have a copyyyy ... Let me look that up ..."
Wow, I thought. Could have sworn Al Franken sold out a large auditorium in Berkeley only a couple of months prior.
Clickety click click clickety click click click click. Pause.
"Oh! Yes. It turns out it's a 'Customer Favorite.' Over by the front. Apparently we have a lot of them!"
Interesting. So not only did this local bookstore worker not know who Al Franken was, she also wasn't familiar with what books the store had ordered en masse!
I'd write this off as one out-of-touch employee, except a few months prior I had tried to find a copy of 7x7 magazine, one of San Francisco's two city magazines, and I had to explain to them what it was. So, yet again, at Borders I was finding a chain store superior to a local independent.
But I digress. The coolest thing about Borders for me might not have even been the helpful staff. On my way out of the store, I noticed a bunch of computer kiosks labeled "Information." I have long thought stores selling or renting CDs, DVDs and books need computers where customers can pull up inventory information, because sometimes you can't find an staffer to help you, and because sometimes you want to search on your own ("I'm looking for a good book on depression, Mr Stranger").
So here were maybe a dozen kiosks actually in action. Unlike the lame ones at Reel Video store in Berkeley, the kiosks weren't just linked to an online shop with no relation to the store. I mean, they did offer to let you order books that were not in stock. But if a book was in the store, the kiosk told you that, and gave you coordinates for where it was.
I tried a lookup. The book was at a place called "C/aisle 1/humor". I looked around and had no idea where "C" might be. So I looked at the kiosk and clicked "Find Location." Up pops a layout map of the store with physical directions to the book from where I was standing!
How cool is that? How cool is Borders??!?!?!!!
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Daily Cal, Feb. 19: Gourmet Food on the Go Comes to North Berkeley