Sunday, May 13, 2007

Gleaning wisdom from Stephen King's cocoa...

Everyone needs a place of intellectual refuge, from time to time.

At the end of most weeks, usually bracketed by air travel to centers of industry I wouldn't have thought I'd ever see once, let alone with any frequency, I look forward to spending an evening with my wife, a stack of periodicals and books, and a hot drink or two at Borders Books & Music in South Portland, Maine.

So what makes this particular location of the national big-box bookstore so special?

For starters, this Borders has a unique combination of size, layout, and selection. It has one of the largest collections of British technology and art periodicals I've seen anywhere. The music department has one of the largest and most diverse collections of opera outside of Harvard Square. It even has accurately forecast the most recent recession and is indicating the onset of another, using the 'end-cap economic indicator' theory (developed by my wife), which states that the end-caps in a book store are a good (albeit subjective) indicator of future buying trends and needs of its customers. When a majority of the high-visibility end-caps are sporting "self-help" and "start your own business" books, you should plan for harder times in the next six months.

Another important attraction that our Borders of choice has, is the staff. Being close to the University of Southern Maine (Gorham Campus), the store employs its share of students who are figuring out what directions their lives and post-retail careers will take between ringing registers, stocking shelves, and serving lattes. For the most part, these students are a microcosm of the digital native vanguard who will be moving on to take leadership roles in all aspects of society, and as such, are a really important group of people to get to know right now. The non-student population working at Borders are just as interesting. In addition to the advice on books and music they share tempered by years of experiences, they offer a most unique reflection of the outside world that passes through the store, day after day.

Getting to know some of the staff at this Borders has been a real treat. Whether its the art history student from New Jersey, the accountant who works on Fridays, the economics major who grew up down the street, or the new, first-time home owner (who is scared to death right at the moment), these are some of the most interesting people you're ever likely to meet.

One of the staff, however, is keeper of a very interesting secret, who shared it with me just the other day.

(In the interests of privacy, and perhaps even to generate a little mystery, I'm not going to list a name or give a detailed description of the staffer in question. However, for any of the Borders management that might be reading this blog posting out of concerns for customer relations, let me just say that everyone working in the South Portland store is great. In fact, you should just come right out and double everyone's pay. You have a great business model, hiring voracious readers who dump half their paycheck right back into the store within a week to satisfy their common addictions. Your margins may be wider than you realize.)

Suffice it to say, before she (ok, that narrows it down a bit) worked at this location, this staffer used to work at the Borders in Bangor, ME. It was here that she would chat with a particular customer who would come through the store on a regular basis - a local writer, none other than Stephen King.

"Stephen", she told me, (already the story is interesting - not 'Mr. King' or a personal pronoun, but 'Stephen') "kept the Bangor store going, with all the books he would buy. He'd get a huge pile of books and sit down at one of the tables to go through them. When I was working in the cafe and he came in, I'd make him cocoa - he (often) ordered cocoa - which he liked the same way each time."

Now what a thought that is. One of the most successful writers of the 20th century regularly escapes to the local bookstore to quietly unwind, get ideas, or even just grab a dependable cup of cocoa. The very person with whom he strikes up friendly chats about what he's reading, thinking, and who knows how to prepare one of his comfort foods, could be the same person you might encounter when you make a similar escape.

It's a very cool thought, and it makes one thing very clear to me:

The next time I want to go to Borders and sit in the cafe, read, get new ideas, and contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I'll know exactly how to order the cocoa.

1 comment:

Marianne said...

I really like this story, Jim! :-D People forget that celebrities, even celebrity authors like to go hang out and find inspiration. We're regulars at our local Barnes and Noble, and the Borders Books in Cranston. Just about everyone who works at either shop knows us on sight or to talk to. Some of them are even friends. :-D

We do like our bookshops - there's always something to inspire. And despite his well deserved success, Stephen King is still just a regular guy at heart. :-)


PS: Just linked you to my blog. :-D