I worked at the largest Borders Books in San Francisco from 2002 to 2006. I started as a Christmas temp, hoping to be offered a permanent bookseller position. I moved into store security instead, and I was simply the worst. I never caught a single shoplifter. Fortunately, before my self-esteem was completely shot, a bookseller position opened up. I was assigned to the children and teen section, my favorite, and I was finally where I belonged.
Through the course of a working shift, we would be rotated around the store every hour. The store took up four floors, so we did an awful lot of running up and down the escalators. We’d staff the cash registers, the various information desks, and then organize our own sections. There were frequent book signings and special in-store performances, and I was often recruited to assist the special events coordinator. Because the store was located in Union Square, surrounded by big hotels and expensive department stores, we often had celebrity shoppers. Word would spread quickly through the store when one arrived, especially in my last year, when we all wore radio headsets. Authors would come in to sign their books, even if they had no scheduled book event at the store When we were at an information desk and somebody walked up, we’d never know if they were a reader or a writer. It kept us on our toes!
The first big celebrity store event I experienced was a visit from Eddie Izzard, who came to sign his Dress to Kill DVD. I was very excited to meet him. All the employees on break or starting their shifts got to spend a little time with him in the basement employee area, before he went upstairs to do his signing. He was very cool, and I got an autographed DVD. Just before I left Borders four years later, Eddie Izzard came back for another signing. He was obviously more tired this time, probably at the end of a long public appearance tour. He was just as cool, though, and even more famous. I enjoyed meeting singers Dar Williams and Joan Baez. When Jane Fonda came for a book signing, I helped to mind her dog. There were a few times when the events coordinator was busy at another store, so I was put in charge of events with author Laurell K. Hamilton and Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue.
It was fine for us to get autographs when a celebrity came in for a signing, but it was not cool to ask for one from celebrities who were there as customers. Too bad, because my collection would be awesome. I was still working store security when Alex Rodriguez came in to browse I was at my usual position by the door, where he stopped and looked outside, clearly annoyed at the rabid baseball fans who were waiting with their binders full of memorabilia to sign. I only knew who he was because of the store grapevine, since I don’t know much about baseball. Still, I nodded at him and tried to appear sympathetic. He was handsome, he seemed a little arrogant, and I could tell his watch was very expensive. That’s all I had time to observe before he walked out to be mobbed.
One of the nicest people I helped as a bookseller was actor F. Murray Abraham. He was energetic and friendly, and I was determined to find something for him. I took him to three different floors, trying to find a book in stock that he’d find interesting. It was one of those days when we seemed to be sold out of every title I looked up. Still, he was full of good humor, and I may have surprised him when I said I enjoyed his performance in the miniseries Dead Man’s Walk. Maybe he gets tired of hearing about Amadeus. I had good luck with actors. I was delighted to find Bill Irwin in the children’s section one day, and we had a quick chat. I’d worked with him in 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse, and I’d recently met him again at the stage door after a performance of his stage show Fool Moon. He’s got to be one of the sweetest people in show business.
The Pursuit of Happyness was filmed in San Francisco, and lots of locals had encounters with the Smith family. Will Smith came in one evening with an entourage and bodyguards. I walked right up and asked him if I could help him find a book. We wandered around two floors, where I made some recommendations and he asked to see some titles. In the end, he chose The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene as a gift for a relative. Will Smith was very extroverted, and I could tell he was used to being the center of his universe. That’s not criticism, just an observation. A few days later, Jada Pinkett Smith came in to shop, and I brought a book down to the ground floor for her. Our contact was very brief. I didn’t get to meet Jaden Smith, but my brother watched him film a scene for the movie. The author of the book, Chris Gardner, dropped by the store more than once, and I have an autographed copy of his book. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I still haven’t read the book or seen the movie!
Simon Cowell was in San Francisco for American Idol auditions, and when I heard he was in the store, I rushed to the ground floor to say hello. I told him I enjoyed his book I Don’t Mean To Be Rude, But… He thanked me politely, and I repeated myself, saying I really enjoyed it. Then he really smiled and told me I’d made his day. Standing next to him felt strange, until I realized it was because we’re used to seeing him seated behind a table or desk.
British actor Damian Lewis came to the information desk, and I mentioned his miniseries Warriors. I went on to gush about his co-star, Ioan Gruffudd. I don’t think that impressed him very much. Of course, he’s got a wry face, so it was hard to tell. When David Sedaris was at the desk signing a stack of his books, I told him I was sorry I couldn’t make it to the event he was doing at a local theatre. He just smirked and said the event was sold out. At least his personality matches his writing style! Then there was the author of new-age spirituality books who refused to ride the elevator with us lowly store employees, so she’s now banned from my reading list.
I often ate lunch at a fifties-themed diner across the street from the store, and one time at the counter, I sat next to actor Chad Lowe. I tried not to stare, but once I finished my meal, I said hello. He was friendly and didn’t seem to mind the intrusion. Of course, I had to tell him how great he was in Life Goes On. Lowe told me he was in San Francisco to option a story from author Ethan Canin. That explained why he had a copy of The Palace Thief on the counter. I mentioned that I worked at Borders and encouraged him to drop by. He said he would try. I warned everyone back at the store to watch for him, and my co-workers reported that he came in, but it was after I’d gone home. Chad Lowe’s meeting must have gone well, because he produced and directed Beautiful Ohio (2006) based on the short story Batorsag and Szerelem, with Ethan Canin as screenwriter. (My roommate lived on the same block as Canin growing up, but that’s her story to tell!)
Many of our celebrity sightings were just that. We’d see them in passing, but that was all. This was the case for me with Matthew Perry, Nicole Richie, and Rachael Ray. I walked up and said hello to actor Paul Dooley and he shook my hand, but that’s all there is to tell. I met Darren Hayes of Savage Garden a second time, as he passed me on his way to the music floor. (My first encounter with Hayes is included in my previous post.)
Some of the authors I met include Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, Temple Grandin, Bret Easton Ellis, Walter Mosely, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Phillipa Gregory, Robin Cook, Cara Black, James Patterson, Tom Wolfe, Gregory Maguire, Peter Robinson, Lawrence Block, Nuala O’Faolain, and Yann Martel. Martel was there to sign his book, but also to insert a small strip of paper at page 317, containing some sentences that had been left out of the first edition paperback. I’m sure he was relieved when his book went into another printing! We discussed the different ways Life of Pi could be interpreted, and he wrote in my book, “May you always believe the better story.”
I left Borders when I could no longer cope with the physical demands of the job, and now the store is closed It’s sad that the big bookstores killed the small independents, and now the big stores are mostly gone. Kindles and ipods are great, but I can’t help wondering, how do you get a kindle edition or an mp3 download autographed? I guess you just take a photo with your cell phone.
Update: Wow, ask the universe a question, and sometimes you get an answer. Now there is the kindlegraph, modern technology’s answer to the autograph.