Saturday, February 22, 2014

Documentary photography of the closure of a bookstore

For reasons I won't get into I ended up working at a bookstore. I won't say much about the job other than I was given an ever increasing amount of hours and then after working for most of a year officially part time (but with full time hours), I was promoted to Head Cashier. A couple of months later, it was announced the store would close. Thus I applied for a few jobs and ended up with one so my final day was today though the store (which closed to the public last week) is still manned while people are packing display units and product. That will probably continue for the next month or so.

While I didn't think to get photos of the store from the same position during the process, I have a medley of photos taken during the process.
This was the cafe, where I used to enjoy my lunch every day when I worked at the bookstore. It was more expensive than a packed lunch but not so much so as an employee. Numbers of times I remember having to head behind the counter to sort out a problem with a register during my lunchbreak. Happy days.
Although I was the Head Cashier, my task every Thursday morning was to arrive at 7am to start shelving magazines. This was driven mostly by the fact that I was the only bookseller willing to turn up at such an ungodly hour and was meticulous enough about the task. Everybody including myself hated magazine shelving. My philosophy was that since I was being paid to do it, I'd do it to the best of my ability in the two hours allowed before the store opened. After that I went back to my Head Cashier role.
 This was my domain. I ran this office better than any previous Head Cashier. There were no errors in the accounting on my watch. Perhaps the most heartsinking moment was when I dropped two cash trays full of cash on the floor and had to collect all the cash - including the coins that had fallen into the trashcan (which by the way was full of soggy tissues and an empty coke can) before re-counting and putting the right change back in each cash tray. My task every opening morning aside from doing all the record keeping and documentation was to open the safe and count the money. My task every closing evening was to do the record keeping and count all the money. Needless to say during the last week of working there before the store closed, I made sure the money was right but skipped a lot of the documentation which I saw being tossed in the garbage after the store closed for good.
This is a photo before the closing news had broken and before the closing sales had started. I must admit that the New York management had the sales scheduled perfectly. Almost all of the bargain stuff had sold and a lot of the non-bargain by the time the store closed. When I left to work elsewhere there was about a day's worth of stock left to pack to ship off to warehouses etc. 

The $20,000,000 question I am always asked is why the store closed. What I was told by the company was that it was a lease issue and that the landlord had not renewed the lease. The landlord's representative told me (when he was down at the store) that the company had refused various different offers. My personal opinion is that over the years I worked there, customer traffic had declined. Combining declining customers, raising rent and lower profits probably meant that the smart thing was to close the store. The death of bookstores really came about when e-readers were introduced. Add to that, the model of a bookstore has changed. Big used to be beautiful. Now it's more often the smaller bookstore with a cafe, a well-chosen selection of popular current fiction, based upon the preferences of the local customer base and a selection of more eclectic works that survives and prospers. Needless to say, a cafe is a must. People like to sit and read. People like to eat and drink while they read too.
I tried most of the food in the cafe. I can't say that I was a great fan of it. As one of the employees stated, it was sustenance but it wasn't a place to go if you wanted to eat. I couldn't really eat the stuff with dairy products in it due to a slight lactose intolerance. The cookies tended to be a shade too sweet but the savories were quite pleasant. None of it was what I would call diet friendly.
After a week or two of the closing sale starting, all the children's toys and games had vanished totally. Normally they were a product that just didn't seem to sell - like a great many of the products. It was amazing to see people coming up with hand carts full of products that might sell at the rate of one or two a week. 
Things shifted slowly when the discounts were at 30% then sales picked up when they reached 40% but didn't get much faster when they reached 50%. Even though there was a closing sale, the shop just didn't feel as busy as it had in previous years. I just had the feeling that there were fewer people buying things and that they were buying cheaper things. I wonder just how much effect the e-reader has had on this.
Behind the scenes. This is the part the public never sees. This is the staff room where meals are eaten, meetings are held and where I have clearly left my coffee (in the white cup) on the table. In the corner was the food and drink machine that pedaled products my friend Linda called "pure poison". I didn't think they were that bad. The problem some people seemed to have was with the machine eating money and not producing a product or producing an empty can etc. I never had an issue.
Toward the end, there were many empty fixtures. Product moved around and the empty fixtures quietly shuffled out of sight of most shoppers to give the impression of full shelves.
The shelves look full but look closely at the bottom shelf and it's empty. The very top shelf has been removed to make it look as though there's plenty stock.
The effect is much more visible here, on the local history bay. Notice how the top and bottom shelves are empty. My personal opinion is the bottom shelves are just too low for most people and the top two rows are ridiculous. Imagine somebody of 5'6" or less trying to reach up there! I could barely reach the top and I'm 6' tall.
As the sale progressed, normally priced stock was not replenished and several entire bays became empty. It became less important to make the shop look full and more important to make it look tidy. Needless to say, with fewer products on sale, the tidying that used to take 2 hours and started an hour before the store closed became ever quicker. Occasionally some dust would be removed but this just stopped happening like a great number of things. 
The stock room suddenly acquired a couple of palates of flat-pack cardboard boxes and huge quantities of bubble-wrap, ready for the massive operation to box the remaining products ready to ship off back to the publishers and distribution centers. Some products labeled as "strip", the publishers didn't want back and just requested that the covers be sent to them. That was so that they knew the book couldn't be sold on the black market. The rest of the book was then dropped into the recycling container outside. I believe that container was filled several times.
Back in my domain, I had to count the cash. I hated handling cash. It's a very dirty thing to handle. Who knows whether people have picked their noses and handled the cash, washed their hands after visiting the toilet before handling cash or even dropped it into something nasty before picking it up and using it. A bank manager friend of mine told me that the number one contaminant on money is not excrement. That's number two. Number one was cannabis. In the picture there, you can see probably about $2,000 of money. I don't see how people can get so excited about grubby paper and metal disks. Maybe I'm an oddball. Money has never excited nor interested me.

Toward the very end, it became an issue with people pulling out fixtures and taking them to the cash registers to ask how much we wanted for them. They were not for sale - they were intended for use in other bookstores. Several times I was asked if I wanted any of the minor items such as decorations etc but my answer was always the same. There was nothing in the store that I really, honestly, wanted. If I want a book, I look it up on and buy it off them. Secondhand books are so much cheaper.
The day after the store had closed. The magazine racks in the background were empty. They were the first thing to be emptied, which was a shame. I'd have liked to have sat down and read through some of the magazines. I never had time when I was working there. There were many that looked interesting but working there I never had the time to read them nor the inclination or money to buy them to read them at leisure. To be honest I think magazines are a horrible waste of financial and material resources. They're expensive and once they've been read, they get thrown out and not largely recycled. The internet is a much better resource than most magazines and just as debatable from an accuracy point of view.
Over the week after closure, shelves began to empty. Books were sorted according to publisher and removed from the shelves by publisher to be boxed and sent off to the publisher or to the distribution centers.
Each day the books that came off the shelves got packed into boxes. The boxes were supposed to hold up to 50lbs but it was very hard to judge and impossible to change once they'd gone over as there was just one set of scales supplied and several people packing boxes of books. Quite a few of mine were over 60lbs and one went to 71lbs. That's on the bottom row, 3rd from the right. It was a case of packing the books on a table and carrying the box to the box area. I pitied the poor truck driver who had to load and move all those boxes. He must have been terribly strong or terribly exhausted later.
Little by little, all the shelves were emptied and the carcass of the bookshop was left behind. Meanwhile representatives of other stores within the chain came to remove the fixtures they wanted. It became comical at times. I looked up to the clock in the break-room to see what the time was and it had gone. I checked my watch and found it was wrong - probably due to the solar flares the night before. Thus my timepiece was solely my mobile phone. Similarly, the automatic paper towel dispensers in the toilets had vanished, which we discovered when we wanted them. Then when we wanted to throw away the paper towels we'd located and used, the bins had also gone.
This is my final photograph of the gutted and desolate bookstore. Needless to say I have other photographs but though they might not be the "best" photographs from a nitpicker's point of view, they are documentary photographs. I wish I had photographs of the bookstore before it closed, showing fully laden shelves. 

My time at the bookstore was an education in dealing with the public en masse. During this time I applied myself to the position and won a great number of sales awards. I am not that enthusiastic about sales even though I'm very good at sales.

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