Origin of the Bookstore
In honor of Borderlands’ 10th Anniversary (November 3rd, 2007), we did a special 12-part feature in our newsletter to share some stories about what Borderlands is and how it got that way. The stories are collected here.
Part the First - Captain Jack’s Tale
by Alan Beatts
Captain Jack’s was the funky used clothing store that occupied 866 Valencia Street from 1994 until 2001. The store’s owner, a Mr. Hale, was also operating a massage therapy studio in the back of the store. Conveniently, Mr. Hale was looking for someone to take over his lease. (He’d had enough of the used clothing business, he told us, and wanted to move to the Santa Monica beach, live in his van, and become a stand-up comedian.) Hale was uninterested in the used clothing inventory he was leaving and just wanted to go. So Borderlands took over the lease and began excavating 7 years worth of used clothes in preparation for turning the place into a bookstore. A frantic month of progressive mark-down sales and kind-intentioned booksellers (who had never in their lives sold clothes) lying through their teeth to shoppers, (“Does this look good on me?,”; “Um, I suppose so . . . uh, sure, lime green with aqua polka dots really suits you!”) followed. Finally, all of the old suits and the cool Che Guevara t-shirts and the feather boas and the fearsome 70’s polyester cut-to-the-navel shirts and the size 12 high heels and especially the lime-green-and-aqua-polka-dotted monstrosities were sold, or given away, or snuck into customers’ bags when they weren’t looking.
The booksellers breathed a collective sigh of relief, and then got a good look at the place. Interior decoration had not been of vital importance to Captain Jack’s, and now that the walls were no longer festooned floor to ceiling with sparkly 20’s ball gowns, we noticed that the walls and ceiling were Pepto Bismol pink, the trim was forest green, and the 100-year-old wood floor was painted dried-blood red. Three eye-catching colors, surely, but also colors that were never intended to be within 50 yards of each other. It was the visual equivalent of a Metallica concert with Barry Manilow and Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute, as the opening acts.
But the paint was the least of our worries. The basement was packed with old furniture, unidentifiable Things, disused Nordic Tracks and also a creepy little room that, judging from the used Q-tips on the floor, had been someone’s home for a time. There was a seven-foot-tall by four-foot-wide mound of moldering blue jeans in the basement, like a nest for the now-extinct Levisaurus, as well as enough centipedes and other things with too many legs to fill a China Mieville novel with some left over for the next Indiana Jones movie. Did I mention that the basement was not a nice place to be? Anyway, we cleaned and we cleared and we took continual trips to the dump and didn’t scream when the centipedes dropped on the backs of our necks from the ceiling. (Well, not much, anyway.)
A short but endless time later Alan sanded the floors back to their “natural” state and we painted the walls and ceiling in more subdued colors. Alan frantically built shelves. We put up the picture molding, crooked, and then took it down, cursing, and put it back again straight. We judged parts of the ceiling too damaged to fix and covered them with hastily constructed but attractive panels to add “visual interest”. We dubbed part of the office wall where it met the ceiling “The Cthulhu Corner” since it was of No Human Shape, and decided to smother the tentacles in crown molding. We sang and drank continual cups of English Breakfast Tea to keep ourselves awake. We joked about the Old Ones opening the dimensional doorway that must surely exist in the store. Then we drank more tea.
We packed up 10,000 books on Laguna Street, moved ‘em to Valencia, got more parking tickets than we thought humanly possible (13 tickets in 4 days was the record), unpacked the books again, and we were in business.
And so very, very tired.
Part the Second - The Tale of Minwax Golden Oak and Diamond Finish
by Alan Beatts
Many years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Alan Beatts decided to open a book store. The Alan Beatts then was not like the Alan Beatts you see now. He was younger. He had darker hair, more energy, and a deep-seated aversion to sleeves. He also didn’t know much at all about woodworking.
But he needed shelves if he was going to have a bookstore. Lots of shelves.
In the course of a month, he managed to get shelves. About twenty-five of them. All tall and all unfinished. And that’s where the problem began.
Anyone who has refinished a coffee table knows how it goes. You sand, then you might put on some kind of stain, and then you add a few coats of some sort of sealer. Wait for it to dry and you’re done. It’s a nice little bit of handyman work that’ll take up a few hours some weekend. But, a good sized coffee table has perhaps 3 or 4 square feet of surface. Twenty-five tall bookshelves have a bit more surface.
A lot more surface, actually. Like ten times more surface. Per shelf. Times twenty-five shelves.
Alan did a little math and realized he was in hell.
So he went looking for some expert advice. Looking through the phone book (remember, back then the internet wasn’t quite as useful as it is now), he found a company in town that advertised, “Everything for professional wood finishing”. When he chatted with the owner (who didn’t seem very friendly or terribly helpful but he was a professional – the sign outside said so) and explained the situation, the solution was clear: “gel stain and wax,” said the professional. A large check was written, warnings about “no returns” were stated, and less than an hour later the finishing began. And then stopped almost immediately.
Gel stain is great stuff. It doesn’t splash, dries quickly, and goes on evenly. But (and this is a big but), it’s a goo. It has to be rubbed on. And it’s a really big pain to get into inside corners (of which a tall bookshelf has 34). Call professional.
“It’s really hard to get the stain into the corners.”
“What do I do?”
“Try using a Q-Tip.”
” . . . . “
Much brooding ensued. “There is no way that I’m going to finish twenty-five blankity-blank bookshelves with a blanking Q-Tip,” thought Alan to himself. By way of distraction while thinking about the problem, he read the instructions for the wax which was meant to follow the stain -
“Buff vigorously when dry”
“Re-coat every six months to a year . . . RE-COAT every SIX MONTHS to a YEAR!!!!”
”@&%##&@! &%$#@& professional! I’ll $@#&%$&* him in front of his family and then &&%@#^&^!”
More brooding. And then Alan called his bank. Then he called the professional and told him that the stain and wax would be returned tomorrow.
“We don’t take returns. I told you that.”
“I know. You’re going to this time. I stopped the check. Don’t bother trying to deposit it.”
” . . . . “
The next day, materials returned, Alan went looking for another solution. He remembered one of the people who he had talked with when he was first looking for shelves. This guy had run a bookstore until he realized that selling bookshelves was more profitable (what this means about the book business is an exercise best left to the reader). A quick phone call revealed that there was a product that went on quickly and dried very fast. And, as a matter of fact, the bookshelf guy had a bunch on hand that he’d be happy to sell for a reasonable price. He gotten it for a big project but later decided that lacquer wasn’t the right finish to use. Arrangements were made to pick up several gallons the next day.
That evening while chatting over a beer with friends, the story of the wood finishing was told. When the new finish, this “lacquer” stuff was mentioned, one of the people around the table, a motorcyclist named Johnny, blanched and asked if Alan had ever used this stuff.
“No, but it seems pretty simple. And the best part is how fast it dries.”
“Yeah, that’s one of the reasons they sometimes call it ‘flash’. I don’t think you should use that stuff.”
“It’s too dangerous. You’ll blow yourself up.”
“That stuff is really, really, flammable. Pretty much one spark when you’ve been working with it for a while and the fumes’ll send you to Jesus. In pieces. That’s the other reason they call it ‘flash’. I’m surprised you could find any. The state is trying to ban it.”
Risk is sometimes a subjective thing. One person’s “too dangerous” isn’t always the same as someone else’s. But, Johnny had an interesting relationship with the concept of “dangerous”. For example he is perhaps the only person on the planet to have accidentally cut a Nissan pickup truck in half. With a motorcycle. It seems that at 80 miles per hour a Suzuki GS1100 is capable of actually severing the frame of a light pickup truck when it impacts at 90 degrees right behind the cab. Johnny commented later that it didn’t seem too dangerous to be going that fast. After all it was a side road and there wasn’t any traffic.
The next day Alan just didn’t bother to show up to get the lacquer.
Time for plan C. Discount Builders’ Supply is an example of a vanishing breed. It’s a huge independent hardware store right near highway 101 in the middle of San Francisco. That’s hard enough to find these days but even more unusual, ‘Da Builders (as we call it) pays a good wage and has an older staff who pretty much know everything about their specialty. There is no telling how many people they have educated over the years, but that day Alan became one of them.
The lady in the paint department listened to the whole story, asked a few questions and said, “Try a Minwax stain. You can brush it on and it dries overnight. Then used a water-based sealer. They dry in about six hours and there aren’t any fumes to worry about. You’ll have to use a few coats but that’s the best way to go.”
And that’s how it worked. It took just over a week of working 12 to 14 hours a day but at the end all the shelves were done. With encouragement from Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits it wasn’t even hell. A long job, sure, but not hell.
The shelves looked really good.
And they still do. The original shelves are still in use nine years later. After a move and several different layouts, they make up the large rolling shelves in the middle of the store. And they’ve never been refinished.
Part the Third - Ripley
by Jude Feldman
Possibly San Francisco’s most famous cat, Ripley joined the Borderlands family in December of 2002. She was a gangly six month old Sphynx catling, selected for her winning personality, semi-hypo-allergenic-ness, and complete and utter lack of “show-cat” cred. Almost everyone knows Ripley, but few know the story of how Alan and I managed to misplace her on her very first night in the bookstore.
Flashback to that misty December eve not so long ago. Alan and I had driven out to fetch Ripley from the East Bay after spending the afternoon shopping for cat food bowls, litter, litter box, small feathered doo-dads, and all the other assorted stuff that you don’t realize you need until you decide to get a cat.
Everything seemed perfect. We’d “cat-proofed” the store to the best of our (okay, I admit it now, completely lame) abilities. Not being a parent, I hadn’t realized that “baby-proofing” is never as simple as you think it will be. Sure, you’ve put those big plastic locks on the cabinet with the Ajax and the ant poison and capped all the electrical outlets, but what about all the stuff that you just don’t realize can possibly be hazardous? Who could expect that the precious tykes will be trying to swallow the TV remote as soon as your back is turned, or smother themselves in your seemingly-harmless throw pillows? Babies can make anything into a hazard; in fact, I think they are wholly responsible for that awful ascetic Danish-modern furniture look, where everything was streamlined and nothing had any sharp corners – have you noticed that the Danish Modern trend coincided with the Baby Boom? Cats function in exactly the same manner. It is a wonder that any survive to continue the species, since they seem so bent on self-destruction.
But I digress. So we’d (pitifully) cat-proofed the place, installed a cat door in any flat surface larger than four feet tall, set up the food and the water bowls and the litter box in (different parts of the) basement, and scattered feathered ankle-turners all over the place. Now it was time for The Cat. Despite my conviction that she’d be freaking out, projectile vomiting, and clinging upside down to the ceiling of the car by her claws on the way back to the bookstore, Ripley was surprisingly tranquil. She curled up on my lap and fell asleep after thoroughly exploring the vehicle. Perhaps I was lulled into a false sense of security. When we finally arrived at the store after the three and a half hour drive, we were in a bit of a hurry to show the cat the litterbox in case she needed to use it. So Alan took Ripley downstairs to the basement and I headed to the stock room where we’d stashed the cat food so I could bring it downstairs and fill up her bowl. Not thirty seconds later, I heard a plaintive mewling from the basement, but it wasn’t Ripley – it was Alan, saying “Juuuuude? I lost the cat!”
I rushed downstairs. “You WHAT? How did you do that?”
“I just set her down in front of the litterbox and turned my back for a second, and she was gone!”
And so ensued a desperate search through the store’s 2000 square-foot basement, which is also Alan’s workshop. The basement, in addition to being full of wood-working tools including several large saws, contains random boxes of books intended for donation, tons of props that we use for window displays, mannequins and clothes racks from the used clothing store which used to occupy the store space, bookcases-in-progress, and lots of the other odd stuff that somehow automatically collects in basements. We tried calling the cat’s name first, before realizing that (a) the cat didn’t know her name, since she’d only had it for three hours, and (b) even if they do know their names, cats never come when you call them, and in fact frequently head the opposite direction instead. So that was ineffective. We meowed loudly. We shook the bag of cat treats. We waved catnip like a talisman.
We looked in the most obvious places first; under the tables holding tools, in the cardboard boxes, etc. No cat. We then tried looking methodically over every inch of the basement – over, under, around and through all the objects there. No cat. We held very very still, (and were vewy, vewy quiet) listening for meowing or rustling. Nothing. Following the useful maxim “when in trouble or in doubt/run in circles/scream and shout,” I was starting to get a little frantic, and even a little irrational. What if there was some undiscovered hole in the basement large enough for a cat to fit through? What if she had crawled inside the walls of the building, like a rat? What if she had impaled herself on a jigsaw? What if we had a previously-undetected inter-dimensional portal in the basement, like the one we have in the ceiling of the office? (But that’s another story.) What if she was shivering in the Mission Playground next door, lost and alone and scared? We intensified our search efforts.
Long story short, we finally located the cat, while crawling around on our hands and knees, in a space technically too small for the cat to fit. (But isn’t that always the way?) She was underneath a wooden pallet, under the basement stairs, which was behind an enormous box of clothing hangers, which was behind a pile of 5-year-old newspapers, which was obscured by a doorless 50-year-old floor-safe that came with the store and is much too heavy to dispose of.
Ripley was contentedly licking her paws as if we hadn’t just spent half an hour panicking and feeling horrible and berating ourselves for killing the cat not ten minutes after we got her to the store. Four years later, she hasn’t shown a marked decrease in her tendency toward mischief. At least now I know to check under the stairs first.
Part the Fourth - The Leak of the Week Pool
by Jude Feldman
As many of you know, Borderlands is housed in an old building. In fact, the building at 866 Valencia turns 100 this year. We like old buildings; their charms and quirks, their character and temperament. Something that we don’t like quite as much, though, is their tendency to leak.
After fire and censorship, water is the third greatest danger to books. So when it comes pouring out of the ceiling unexpectedly, you get some pretty frantic booksellers, and for a while we were pretty frantic all the time. The store leaked when it rained, when the wet leaves on the roof above the skylight became too sodden and heavy, when the plumbing in various parts of the apartments upstairs developed problems, and sometimes for no discernible reason at all. The following are three selected episodes from the period in which the Borderlands employees enacted what we called “The Leak of the Week Pool,” an unofficial betting pool where we wagered on what part of the store would leak next.
One evening, shortly after closing time, Alan and I were working in the office and Cary was finishing the store-closing duties. We heard an odd “plunk-plunk-plunk” sound, and without further warning big whitish drops of water were falling from the center of the office ceiling. Through the light fixture. And then there was grayish water fountaining in an oddly pretty fashion off the top of the lamp and splashing on to every flat surface. I would like to tell you that the three of us responded with military precision, one of us fetching buckets, one of us turning off the lights and covering the computers with plastic sheeting, and one of us running upstairs to see what the problem was, but in actuality our response was anything but precise. We did in fact do those things, but it was more like the Keystone Plumbers or the Three Stooges than the Navy Seals. After staring dumbly for what seemed like an eternity in disbelief, we realized that we were getting the grayish water in our mouths, which had unconsciously dropped open. Cary and I moved as fast as we could, frequently bumping into each other, to protect the contents of the office, dimly aware that we were being soaked in an unidentified watery substance, while Alan went upstairs at a run, T-wrench in hand. It turned out that the gentleman in the apartment directly above the office was painting his room, and washing the paintbrushes in his sink. He hadn’t noticed that the drain of his sink had become detached from the wall and was drenching everything below him in heavily diluted white paint. Alan re-attached his drain in minutes. Miraculously, the only casualties of this encounter were a handful of books and both Cary’s and my boots, which never recovered. It also took three showers each to remove the paint from our hair.
Another adventure from the same period concerned the building’s sewer. Now there is never a good time to have sewer trouble, but there probably could have been a better time than the day I went to Dickens Faire, the Victorian Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace. It was pouring rain that day, and I dropped by the store after closing to pick up my computer and ran into Alan, who quickly informed me that we “seemed to be having sewer issues”. He once again went upstairs at a run with a T-wrench to turn off the water supply to the building and I took over his unenviable task of emptying the near-overflowing toilet into multiple five-gallon buckets. The plumbers arrived while I was bailing as fast as I could, and I raced to the door to let them in. They stopped dead for a moment to stare at me, and I realized that most people probably don’t bail toilets in a corset, velvet jacket, knee-high boots with four-inch heels and a long skirt tucked into their waistband. Oh dear. Anyway they recovered themselves quickly and followed me as I dashed to the bathroom at the back of the store yelling “This way!,” only to find them arrested mid-motion again by Ripley. In the middle of this, they wanted to ask me questions about the cat! Sometimes you just have to laugh.
Speaking of Ripley and the Leak of the Week, this last story concerns her. I’ll bet you didn’t know that cats have preternatural leak-detecting abilities. Well, they do. Ripley, in fact, has a special meow that we call the “Timmy’s down the well” meow, in affectionate tribute to Lassie. More than once we’ve heard this distinctive meow and found the cat racing back and forth across the store, staring at the ceiling. When we’d follow her, she’d inevitably lead us to a small leak that was just in the process of becoming a big leak. Last time, because of the derring-do of the cat, the only casualty was a small section of the used mass markets in “S”.
Postscript: Thanks to Alan’s rapidly acquired plumbing skills (and willingness to risk life and limb climbing on the roof to clear the leaves,) the Leak of the Week has become just a series of darkly funny memories. But the T-wrench, plastic sheets and buckets are still kept close at hand, awaiting a plaintive meow.
Part the Fifth - The Decor, or “Is this a library or do you sell books?”
by Alan Beatts
People frequently comment on how nice Borderlands looks. Sometimes they seem a little surprised that the shop looks so good and their surprise often seems to be strangely amplified when they consider our specialty. It was probably best put by Terry Pratchett the first time he visited. He walked in, looked around and declared, “This can’t be a Science Fiction shop, it hasn’t sh*t all over the floor!”
Though I don’t agree with Mr. Pratchett’s assessment of Science Fiction shops in general, I do think Borderlands looks good. I’ll even go so far as to say it looks better to me than most bookstores. But however nice it looks, the paint scheme, wooden fixtures and floors, oriental carpets, and “old fashioned” touches (like the lock on the bathroom door – which I think is doing very well for its age, despite the occasional customer who worries about getting trapped in there. What’s so complicated about “wiggle the key in, turn counter clockwise to unlock, now turn knob clockwise to open”? I should be so lucky as to be doing that well when I’m 100 years old!) Ummm, what was I saying? Right . . . .
The overall look of the shop is a little “olde time” for a sci-fi bookstore. It might fit the supernatural just fine and fit fantasy well but SF? Kinda’ dated. And it looks like that by accident.
When I was first looking for a place to open my shop, I had a hard time. I needed somewhere that was small (so I could cover the rent) and in the right kind of neighborhood. Considering what rents were like back then, I could only afford around 1000 square feet. Also, some areas of town were just a little too frisky for me (like the one storefront I looked at on Mission St. that had a (relatively fresh) bloodstain on the sidewalk right by the door). I looked all over town, I talked to realtors, I watched the paper feverishly but nothing turned up. This went on for months.
During these months I spent lots of time thinking about what the shop would look like. I was working at a motorcycle shop at the time and had access to plenty of metalworking equipment. That, combined with a short budget and a sort of post-cyberpunk aesthetic meant that my mental image was very monochrome and industrial. A steel counter, clear coated over a brushed finish and perhaps a little rust captured under the finish. Black, modern shelving. Trashy, post-modern furniture. Industrial gray carpet. Sort of William Gibson meets Philip K. Dick by way of Monster Garage.
One day I was heading back to the place I was staying and happened to be passing a building that had just been sold – the “For Sale” sign was still up with a big “sold” banner across it. The new owner was doing some work on it and it had a vacant storefront that looked pretty good. I stopped and talked to the guy. He showed me the space and it was darn close to perfect. We chatted a bit and that was when I started to realize that he was a little nuts.
“What kind of business are you going to open?”, he asked.
“A bookstore.” By then I had already realized that saying “A science fiction, fantasy and horror bookstore” did not improve my chances of getting a lease. When I’d said that in the past, people had looked at me as if I was about to grow another eye, start twitching, or some damn thing.
“I don’t read.”, he said.
” . . . ?”
“You’re going to have shelves. What kind? What are they going to be made out of?”
“Painted or stained?”
I was realizing that this guy was a little . . . odd. He’d already talked at great length about how he was refinishing the floors in the whole building, which had been built in the 1880’s. He’d also talked about the other buildings that he owned, all of which were old.
The light dawned and the BS started.
“Oh, stained without a doubt. I think that will go best with the wood floors, don’t you? In fact, I think that it would be really nice to have the whole look of the place be kind of . . . you know . . . traditional.”
I held my breath.
He looked at me.
He looked at me more.
“OK,” he says, “Three years with a three year option. We’ll base the rent on a couple of comps in the area.”
He might as well have been speaking Greek, but I got the idea that I had a space and, less than a week later (and after burying him under about 40 pages of very imaginative business plan) I had a lease.
And then he started to give me tips about what “traditional” looked like. I did all the work – paint and floor sanding, mostly – and he covered the materials. I learned a hell of a lot and it was a lot of hell. My landlord had very high standards for this kind of work and he treated me more like a very junior member of his construction crew that like a tenant. On a daily basis he would yell at me about something. I really wanted him to be happy because in the first place, I had learned a long time ago that a landlord that likes you is far easier to deal with than one who doesn’t. In the second place I really thought that this guys was crazy enough about old buildings that, lease or no lease, he’d throw me out on my ass if he didn’t like what I was doing.
But when all was said and done, the place looked great and I found that I really liked it. The customers liked it too. And that tone has stuck ever since.
Part the Sixth - Off-Site Bookselling, or “Are You a Band?”
by Jude Feldman
Borderlands has done (and continues to do) many off-site events, including our well-loved Movie Nights at the Variety Preview Room, the Sonoma County Book Fair in Santa Rosa, and the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow two years ago, just to name a few. This installment of “Origin” focuses on a few aspects of what it is like to create a miniature version of the store, someplace else entirely.
When the staff travels to a convention or other off-site event that involves airplane transport, we frequently pack the books that we will be selling in large gray trunks. Think of a heavy-duty plastic version of a surplus Army trunk and you’ve got the idea. Years and years ago, Alan painstakingly modified these trunks with foam and cardboard padding, to make anything packed inside one neigh on indestructible, even in the hands of baggage handlers. An amusing side effect of traveling with these “road cases” is that the traveling staff is continually and repeatedly mistaken for a band. In airports from Seattle to Wisconsin to Kansas City, perfect strangers have approached us and asked “What band are you in?!” Several of these people flatly refused to believe that we were booksellers, and what a surreal situation that was: Them: “C’mon, just tell me!” Us: “We’re actually booksellers. There are books in these trunks.” Them: “No, seriously – I won’t tell anyone if you want it kept secret! What is the name of the band?” Us: “No, really, we run a bookstore! None of us plays an instrument at all.” Them: “Aw, I wouldn’ta told anyone. You SUCK!” Us:
Another entertaining aspect of selling books outside the store is the lengths that Alan and the staff will go to to make our booth or table inviting and reminiscent of the store. Alan and Roger Range, a very dedicated friend of Borderlands, once spent two hours frantically constructing bookshelves with boards, hammer and nails in the parking lot of a hotel in Maryland for the Borderlands booth at the Horrorfind Convention. We schlepped four Oriental carpets all the way to Anaheim for the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention. So far we’ve braved misplaced boxes (Scotland: “I’m sorry, sir, I just don’t understand how 32 boxes of books could go missing. We’ll keep looking.”), inclement weather (San Francisco: it pattered rain on our cardboard boxes, store banner and cash register all the way to WonderCon this year), and other peoples’ near-death experiences (driving to Tempe, AZ for the 2004 World Fantasy Convention, in some of the worst rain we’d ever seen, a car spun out directly in front of our truck. The car crossed all four lanes of traffic, spinning the whole time, crashed into the guard rail and came to rest. It was only through some seriously fancy driving that we didn’t crash, as well. Alan was a paramedic, and I have had First Responder training, so we screeched to a halt and ran to help the driver, terribly certain that he or she would be badly injured. Thankfully and miraculously, the driver was totally unharmed. The funny postscript to that rather harrowing story is that, since it was raining so heavily, Alan and I were drenched and literally dripping wet after we’d finished waiting on the side of the freeway for the police to arrive. We pulled off the road into a shopping center looking for a place to buy towels, but it was too late at night. We ended up buying two bundles of kitchen rags (the only thing we could find) at a supermarket, and trying ineffectually to dry ourselves with the handkerchief-sized rags outside the market. We were looking like drowned rats and laughing hysterically from the adrenaline and the absurdity. The passers-by were giving us wide berth indeed.)
But I have digressed, yet again. My whole point in this is that Borderlands seeks, as best we can, to give the folks who meet us outside of the store an impression of what the store is like, in the hopes they will come visit us in San Francisco. I like to think we do a pretty good job, and the miniature versions of the store we recreate are much like the actual store: clean, nicely furnished, well-stocked, and staffed entirely by employees who are knowledgeable, helpful and lovable, but of dubious sanity.
And to all of you who have asked, no – it is final – we’re not bringing Ripley to any off-site events. It would end badly.
Part the Seventh - 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Borderlands Books
by Jude Feldman
The origin of the store piece this month is shorter than usual, because I’ve been so terribly busy building ornate little castles with my writer’s blocks!
10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Borderlands Books:
Borderlands has a dress code, and it consists of a single rule. You can email email@example.com if you want to know what the rule is.
The combined age of all six Borderlands employees is 226, and between us we have approximately 43 years of book selling experience, 21 piercings and 14 tattoos.
The Borderlands staff includes people who have been: a nightclub DJ, a go-go dancer, a bike messenger, a high school teacher, an accountant, a beef-jerky salesperson, a microelectronics assembly engineer, an Emergency Medical Technician, a Dead-Head, a floppy-disk assembly line operator, an Information Technology professional, a stage manager, voice-over/television/movie actors (2), and hotel maids (2).
There are currently 1,177 books in the store that cost $1.75 or less.
Ripley has been filmed for 2 documentaries, 1 independent film and a cable-access show.
The store backs up to the Mission Playground, and an average of once a day someone on the staff has to toss a soccer ball back over the 18 foot high fence.
More than half the staff have been homeless at some point in their lives, and more than half the staff have worked at higher-education institutions.
In three years, Borderlands has donated over 4000 books to the guests at Martin de Porres House of Hospitality, a free restaurant that serves meals to those in need. You can find out more about the good work that Martin’s is doing here.
Borderlands does an average of 50 in-store author events a year.
We have had author and/or artist guests in the store who: accidentally broke chairs, smoked marijuana before their readings, left what they were going to read at home and had to improvise, praised the store for “not having s**t all over it,” incorporated employees into their novels or artwork, drew Ripley with Ren and Stimpy, and had such a good time they promised they’d be back “until forcibly prevented”.
Part the Eighth - Inventory
by Alan Beatts
Being obsessive-compulsive and reasonably technically apt has its upsides and its downsides. Both sides were demonstrated during the first inventory at Borderlands.
When I decided to open the shop, one important part of my business plan was to sell books online. Today, that’s a pretty simple matter but at that time it was not. In November of 1997, I had no idea how I was going to sell books online but I did know one thing – if I was going to, I’d need an accurate database of all the books in the store.
So, in what was going to become my typical dammit-I’ll-just-learn-it-myself business model, I decided to brush up on a program called FileMaker (which I had used years previously for databases in, it makes me blush to admit, . . . role-playing games) and set up an inventory myself. It was easy to do, after all, what do you need to keep track of with books? Title, author’s name, cover price, selling price, cost, and that should do it. Right? Oh yeah, I figured that I’d better add the date it was published and if it’s a first printing, since I guessed that there were some people who cared about that. And, there was this ten digit number on a lot of these books, so I added that too. But beyond that, what else should I need?
(Ten years later: No, that’s not quite enough. At this point there are over 50 separate pieces of data we keep about used books. And more than that for new books.)
Once the database was set up, it was just a matter of getting all the books in the store entered into the database.
All. The books. In. The store.
Right now we have 14,000 titles in stock. Back then we didn’t have anything like as many. Only something like 4000. And it took about three minutes to enter each one. I sat down at the table in what was to be my office (I didn’t have a desk yet) and did the math. 4000 times three minutes is 12,000. That divided by 60 is 200. 200 hours. And the store was supposed to be open in about four days.
Grab phone and start calling friends. Especially my computer consultant friend -
“Hi Bill, it’s Alan.”
“Um, how many used Macs do you have right now for sale?”
“I dunno, maybe a dozen or so.”
“Can I rent all of them?”
“What the hell are you trying to do!?”
We chatted and finally Bill, bless his heart, agreed to bring them down to the shop, set up a network, and install copies of Filemaker on all of them.
Then I started calling lots of other friends. Especially anyone who could type quickly. I had accountants, legal secretaries, computer programmers, and assorted other folks come down to the store (which by now had computers set up on almost every flat surface) and start entering books. I supplied all the pizza and soda that anyone could consume and we started entering books.
I had to go buy fans to put in the smaller rooms (there were five separate rooms in the old shop) because the heat from the computers and the people made it like a sauna.
I had to explain not once but three times that, though I didn’t care what people did outside of the shop, no-one was going to bring (as one accountant put it), “Chemicals often considered recreational but that are considerable performance enhances for this kind of work” into my shop.
I briefly but completely lost my mind when I discovered that there were two whole shelves of books that, after being entered into the inventory, had been put back on the shelves in completely random order.
I bought all the black tea that was to be had in the neighborhood and a fair portion of all the coffee.
I again lost my mind when the files I was merging together got out of order and completely messed up four hours of work.
I got on a first name basis with the dispatcher at Mr. Pizza Man.
And it went on and on and on.
Then, about 48 hours later and completely without sleep, it was done.
And wonder of wonders, I still had some friends left and no one had killed me.
Part the Ninth - Sidelines
by Jude Feldman
“How hard can it be to find a stupid bike messenger bag?!” I threw up my hands in frustration. I’d been looking for days; sending out email queries, flipping through catalogs, staring at low-resolution pictures on-line until my eyes stung and my contact lenses felt glued in place. I felt like the Goldilocks of bike-messenger-bag seekers, except that there was no sign of the “Just Right” one yet, and there seemed to be about 48,000 bears’ beds to choose from. This bag was too large, and that one too small. This one was made of cheap nylon and looked flimsy, that one appeared to be made of Kevlar and, if the cost was any indication, it darn well better have stopped bullets, too. That type would be great, except it only came in an eye-offending orange or Army green, and all 53 of those looked too much like computer bags. And I still had to find pens, and pint glasses, and coffee mugs and stickers.
Welcome to the wonderful world of sidelines. What’s a sideline, anyway? Other than someplace in sports where you sit when you’re not in the game? A sideline, in retail-speak, is a line of products that you sell in your store that is outside your main purview. So Borderlands carries a handful of sidelines; essentially everything in the store that isn’t a book.
So that covers greeting cards and Ripley postcards, our cool wooden boxes, all the dragon and skull tchotchke, blank books, jewelry, art prints, sculptures and our Borderlands branded gak. Before starting my career in retail lo these many years ago, it never occurred to me to wonder where stores bought their stuff. I never would have suspected that there were such things as “Gift Fairs,” or that they could possibly fill the whole of Moscone Center. (Google “San Francisco International Gift Fair” if you’re interested.) I just knew that Alan wanted the sideline items that Borderlands carries to fit with the feel and personality of the store. Some of those items were no-brainers. Cary and I both have a weakness for beautiful boxes, so those were easy, and we ended up with Ripley postcards by customer request. Most of the other stuff we’d seen and admired elsewhere, and it fit right in to the store.
But the bike messenger bags were another matter entirely. Many businesses have tote bags with their logos on them, but Borderlands needed something a little more practical, and, frankly, a little classier. Which brings me back to the brain-numbing stupidity of trying to find the perfect messenger bag. For days.
Pardon me while I digress – I hate shopping! I suppose that seems both amusing and disingenuous coming from a professional book buyer, but shopping and book buying aren’t the same thing at all.
Shopping is when you wander around all slack-jawed and “Night Of The Living Dead-ish”. Shopping is like the adult version of writing standards on a blackboard. Shopping, to me, is just very slightly more appealing that non-elective surgery. Bleah. My friend Jim calls that zombie/shopping state “wandering in the mall”. And as much as I wanted the store to have great bike messenger bags, the process of finding them was rapidly exceeding my shopping tolerance.
I finally found those perfect bike messenger bags, six days into the process. I had done almost nothing for that entire period except review messenger bag options. Now, please understand that this is not a bid for pity. I am fully aware that while I was spending all that time looking for messenger bags, there were literally millions of people in the world doing good and important and life-saving work that actually matters, and this doesn’t matter at all. It is, however, just how the story goes.
And this is where the story ends. I’m not going to talk about trying to match the “official” Borderlands’ shade of red on products from three different vendors (glasses, mugs and pens). And I’m not even going to think about baseball hats. I’ll give you one hint about how that worked out – have you ever seen a Borderlands’ baseball cap?
And you won’t either.
Part the Tenth - Second-Hand Things
by Alan Beatts
Much of the furniture and equipment at Borderlands has a curious and checkered past. Almost everything in the store that wasn’t purpose-built by me (often with the very patient help of staff and friends) was either A) bought used, B) a hand-me-down, C) a gift or D) scrounged in some other fashion. Here’s a little list of some of the notable and interesting items -
The glass cases behind the counter were bought from the science department at the College of San Mateo where they were used as microscope cases ‘till I got a hold of them. The cabinets on the back counter came from the same place where they were used for chemical storage (and my, weren’t they fun to clean!). The display case at the front counter displayed cigars and fine liquor in a shop in Noe Valley. The laser printer at the counter came from the motorcycle shop I used to manage – applause to Hewlett Packard since it’s eleven years old and still going strong.
The two (large, stuffed) cockroach puppets that decorate the cash register came from Community Thrift courtesy of long-time store volunteer Mikael. They are Saints Gulik, messengers of the Discordian goddess Eris, of whom several prominent store employees are adherents. If that last sentence looked like gibberish to you, read THE PRINCIPIA DISCORDIA, conveniently for sale at Borderlands.
The light colored bookshelves near the front door were hand-me-downs from my brother when he and his family moved to Japan. The tall one came from his office and the two shorter ones were my niece and nephew’s first real bookshelves. I bought the display case in front of the office window from my friend Kelleigh, who was the owner of the Ebb-Tide cafe. She bought it used herself but it never worked in her shop (it was meant to be a pastry case).
Most of the rugs throughout the store have been in my family for generations (my parents and my maternal grandparents were all very fond of Oriental rugs). I remember crawling around on them as a child and tracing the patterns with my finger. The blue rug in the office was a gift from a longtime customer, Guy Johnson. The couch at the rear of the shop (and its larger mate in the back room) were bought via a classified ad in the SF Weekly three days before the store opened in Hayes Valley. I was in a panic because I concluded that there weren’t enough places to sit, so I rushed out and bought those couches. I think I spent $75 on the both of them. I still remember the expression on my mother’s face when I brought them to the store, where she was helping shelve books. I said, “Look! I got ‘em for 75 bucks.”
And she said, “Really . . . .” while her expression said, “Holy Christ! What the hell were you thinking?”
I have to admit that they are the least attractive pieces of furniture in the shop but they’ve grown on me over the past ten years. The cats, like several generations of unknown cats before them, occasionally use them as scratching posts. The chairs at the back of the shop, as well as the sideboard (and the oak file cabinets in the office) all came from Cottrell’s Moving and Storage. Now closed, Cottrell’s was on Valencia near Duboce and it was the place to get decent furniture for cheap. If people didn’t pay their storage bill for too long, their furniture ended up for sale. Based on the age of some of the furniture, Cottrell’s had been in the storage business for a long, long time.
In the office, my desk is an old WWII vintage receptionist’s desk that my mother bought used and then gave to me when I was in high school. Jude’s desk was the one good desk that was left here by the owner of Captain Jacks when I bought him out, prior to moving to the current location.
All the computers and associated bits were either hand-me-downs from my brother, Joe (it’s nice to have a computer programer in the family) or were bought used from various sources, notably the nice folks at PowerMax or my friend and computer consultant par excellence, Bill Melcher.
Part the Eleventh - Moving Books
by Alan Beatts
Anyone who collects books or who is an avid reader knows what a pain moving books can be. But to really appreciate how bad it can get you have to work at a bookstore (or, gods help you, own one). As I write this, Borderlands has a total of 18,937 books in the store. When we moved here from our old location, we only had about half that number. All of which had to be boxed up in alphabetical order and moved over to the current location. We were clever (at least a little bit) and found boxes that were exactly the right size to fit three long rows of mass-market paperbacks (those are the small paperbacks) stacked one deep. At least that meant that the books would stay in order as they were moved. Then it was just a matter of packing them up. And packing them up. And packing them up.
I was busy working on getting the new location into shape and most of the rest of the staff were either working their other jobs or helping me at the new location, so Claud Reich packed almost all the paperbacks by himself. When I left the bookstore that morning, there was a pile of broken down boxes in the middle of the store about five feet high. By the time I got back there in the evening, there were three or four piles of boxes in stacks higher than Claud’s head (and he’s not a short guy – taller than my six feet, in fact). When you think of regular moving boxes, that doesn’t seem very high, but remember, these boxes were only 4” high. That is a lot of boxes. And then there were all the boxes of hardcovers and trade paperbacks.
Of course at the other end they all had to go back on the shelves, but that wasn’t too bad since there were plenty of people to do that job . . . except that the order got a little messed up and so we had to take a bunch of books off the shelves and then put them back. Actually, that happened twice. The second time we had to take about a quarter of the books down and put them back. It was OK though – no one died. Although I think that someone did say something about throwing me down the stairs (the second mistake was my fault).
So that was a chore but not too bad. The real pain in the fundament book moves are the “little” rearrangements. As our long-time customers know, we switch things around at the shop pretty often. One section will get too crowded and a reshuffle will be in order or I’ll have time to make some new shelves and we’ll have to move things to get them to fit. The catch with all of that is that you can’t move a full bookshelf. At least not if you want it to remain looking like a bookshelf and not some strange, non-Euclidian geometry exercise. So, adding one shelf sometimes means moving a bunch of others. And that means clearing the shelves. But where, you might ask, do you put all the books that you’ve taken off the shelves?
On any flat surface you can find.
I can tell you from experience that the floor at the front of the store and the open area in the middle of the shop will accommodate about half of all the hardcovers in the science fiction and fantasy section of the store, if you allow a narrow walkway all around the edge. After that it gets interesting.
Moving paperbacks has its own special qualities. There’s almost never a problem with where to put them after they come off the shelves (they’re small, don’t ‘cha know) but moving them . . . most people can comfortably hold two hardcovers in each hand. That’s not much of a strain and you really can’t carry much more than that effectively. But paperbacks on the other hand . . . An average person can carry about 15 inches of paperbacks at once and they can do it fast. Here’s how it works – you stick one hand into the end of the shelf and then you stick the other hand in part way down. Now squeeze your hands together, hard. If you’ve done it right you can slide the books out of the shelf and they’ll stay between your hands long enough to tilt the whole stack so it’s vertical. Then you walk wherever you’re going and tilt it back. The books hit the table or whatever with a “thump” and you’re off for more.
The problem is that you have to squeeze hard to do it and it gets tiring for your arms. After a while you’ll slip. Best case the books just fall to the floor in random order. You curse, re-sort them, and pick them back up. But worse case you try to squeeze harder. This will cause what we booksellers call a book-fountain. The extra squeeze just as the books are slipping gives them an added push and they’ll tend to go up . . . and all over the place. It’s sort of like 52 pickup with paperbacks. Or throwing the paperback I Ching.
The last piece of icing on the book-moving cake is that Borderlands is open seven days a week year ‘round (with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Gay Pride Day). That means that moving the books around has to happen after closing time and must be finished by noon the next day. And I’m here to tell you, it’s been a close call a couple of times.
Part the Twelfth - The Real Story
by Alan Beatts
For reasons only dimly understood even now and too complex to get into here, I decided at 17 that I was best suited to some type of work that involved carrying a gun and dealing with violence. Many people might have been worried about such a choice for reasons of their safety or health but at the time I was pretty firmly convinced that I wouldn’t live to see 30. I considered the military (too structured and they would make me cut my hair, which has been long for most of my life), the intelligence field (they wanted too much college and I was really sick of going to school), and several other, less respectable, options. In the end I decided to go to college and study what was called either Administration of Justice (community college) or Criminology (UC and Cal State). Through a bunch of twists and turns, I ended up doing what I planned and working all over while doing all kind of jobs – jobs that ranged from interesting to deadly boring, safe to madly dangerous, useful to utterly pointless. I learned a great deal, met some wonderful people, and I don’t regret it for an instant.
And then I hit a wall.
As I was getting better and better at what I did and taking on more and more responsibilities, an essential conflict between my job and my personality become worse and worse. I’ve always been a bit unconventional and politically liberal – though my “liberalism” was only on about half the issues, on the other half I’ve always been “conservative” (i.e. if they want, I’d like my friends to be able to take their concealed handgun to their same-sex wedding) – but I was in a field that is conservative to an astonishing degree. The two things didn’t mix well. A case in point - I went to ridiculous lengths to conceal my real name from my drug-running, motorcycle riding, club-hopping lover of the time because I was (rightly) worried that it could make problems with my security clearance if anyone found out (by the way, my nickname from back then still sticks, to the confusion of many). Living a double life like that is a strain, even for someone who had done their share of undercover work.
And then there was the job stress. I was carrying two pagers, from two different companies, because it was so critical that I be reachable 24 hours a day. At one point, I worked for over a month without a day off. I’ve always been able to work pretty hard but that was too much. I was falling apart physically and emotionally.
So I quit. Completely. And radically simplified my life.
A few months later the sum total of my possessions (that weren’t in long term storage) fit into one mid-sized duffle bag and two motorcycle saddle bags. I was sleeping in a different place pretty much every night and I never slept the same place three nights in a row. I didn’t have a job, a mailing address, or a home. Hell, my life was so simple that I only had one key. I spent most of my time in San Francisco. During the days I’d read in cafes, hang out wherever I’d spent the last night, or, if I was tired, I’d go to Golden Gate Park and take a nap. At night, I’d be at some nightclub either dancing or seeing a band. I picked up odd jobs, mostly as a roustabout in clubs. After a while I started working as a DJ and later did some nightclub promoting. Back then I drank a lot and there were plenty of mornings when I’d wake up not knowing exactly where I was or how I got there. That I didn’t die in a motorcycle crash can only be marked up to a long run of very good luck (near the end I did crash, but I got away easy with just a few torn muscles in my back, a DUI charge, and a busted-up motorcycle).
At the time, I knew exactly what was wrong with me – I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life; there was nothing that I was striving for or even trying to accomplish (other than getting enough money to keep me in food, booze and smokes).
In retrospect I’ve come to believe that along with that, I also was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It seems very strange and self-indulgent to be saying that. After all, I wasn’t in a war and, though there was plenty of stress in my previous career, nothing happened to me that was a fraction as bad as what is happening daily in Iraq. But, in a large part as a result of talking with a friend who was in Vietnam and who suffered a pretty severe case of PTSD, over the past two years I’ve started to think that, despite there being (as it seems to me) no good reason for it, that was part of what I was experiencing back then. (As a side note, it is interesting that my friend will tell anyone who asks that nothing terribly bad happened to him either.) Whether it is reasonable or justified, I see now that I had all the symptoms associated with PTSD.
Regardless of the details, my state of mind and lifestyle was not one that would have been survivable in the long term. Thankfully I got tired of the nightclub business about the same time that an old employee of mine got in touch because he was opening a motorcycle repair shop. He was a good mechanic but he knew that he wasn’t well suited to run the office and customer service side of a business. So he asked me to take over that part. As he put it, “I saw how you used to deal with people when you carried a gun. If you could put up with them, you’ll be able to put up with customers. And the best part is . . . no one dies if you make a mistake.” For two years I managed the shop and discovered that I really loved running a small business and helping customers. But, I also discovered that I worked harder than the owner and started to resent it. Also, all the same problems were still bugging me. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything with my life and I was very depressed most of the time. In fact, the depression was getting progressively worse as relations between me and the owner of the shop were going downhill.
Finally I decided that, if I was going to keep on walking around, I had to do something that I cared about. Opening my own business seemed one of the best choices – though heading out to Prague and DJ-ing was also a strong contender. At the very least, if I owned my own business I’d have somewhere to sleep every night (after three years, homelessness was wearing on me and it didn’t help with the depression). So I thought about it for a long time and decided that there was room in SF for a used bookstore that specialized in science fiction, fantasy and horror. I figured that I could run it by myself, stock it initially with my own books, and make ends meet (significantly aided by my rent-free, motorcycle-riding, Top Ramen-eating lifestyle).
Well, it didn’t quite work out that way but it came close. The space was bigger than I had planned (with equally higher rent), I didn’t have enough books to fill it so I bought quite a few from another bookseller who had too many, and it was very quickly obvious that I wouldn’t be able to make it work with only used books so I added selected new books as well. But over all it worked out well. The space was great. My landlord never asked if I was living there and I didn’t tell him.
For those of you who remember the old store at 534 Laguna Street, it was a warren of small rooms – three total. But what most people never saw were the other three rooms. One was my office by day and at night the couch folded out, the back room concealed a relatively complete kitchen, and there was a full bath in the final room (I still miss the tub there – it was a huge claw foot and had probably been installed when the building was built in the 19th century). I had blinds in the front windows and at the end of the day I’d close them. Well-meaning customers would always point out that I should leave them open so people could see the window displays when the shop was closed. I just used to smile and think how window shoppers would react to see me wandering around the shop in my bathrobe!
Everything went well for three years. Business grew steadily and after a year or so I was able to hire Jeremy Lassen to help out around the shop. That was a huge relief. From the day that I opened until I hired Jeremy I had worked six days a week, every week except for a few extra days off around Christmas (but it evened out – the month before Christmas I stayed open seven days a week. I’d been working 28 days straight by the time the holiday rolled around).
Then three things happened all at the same time - my lease ran out, the dot-com boom got going, and I found out what a bastard my landlord was. See, I had a second option on my lease for another three years at the same rent. In December I told my landlord that I wanted to take the option. He said fine and I forgot about it. Then the lease ran out in April and he raised the rent. I mentioned the option and he pointed out that the lease said that I had to ask for it in writing and I had to do so before the first lease ran out. I told him that I’d talked to him about it in December. He shrugged.
I wanted to kill him. Instead I panicked and told all my friends that I was looking for a new space. And shortly thereafter my mom, bless her, found an ad for the business that was selling-out in our current location at 866 Valencia.
The saga of moving the store has been discussed elsewhere and I’ll not repeat it here. One epilogue that bears mentioning though – my old landlord did very well during the dot-com boom. At his height he owned over 20 buildings in San Francisco. But . . . so far as I’ve been able to find out, when the crash hit he lost everything.
I should feel bad for him but I don’t.
One catch about the new location was that it really wasn’t very well set up as a place to live. But I’m nothing if not flexible and (on good days) imaginative. Nowadays people sometimes comment on what a nice stock room we have. It used to be a bit more than that. In the back room at Borderlands is a closet. If you move the brooms and ladder you might notice the shower head, the fiberglass walls and the drain in the floor . . . the loft where we now store boxes of used books is almost the exact dimensions of a queen size bed . . . and a bookstore doesn’t really need a two-compartment sink in the back room . . . I think you get the picture. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived at the shop but if, years ago, you ever saw a grey shape flitting around in the back of the store late at night – it wasn’t a ghost.
I had never figured out a good way to install a toilet in the back room.
It’s about time to end this tell-all account. It’s ten years later and I’m not the person who opened Borderlands. I’m hardly ever depressed now and when I am, there’s a reason and it passes very quickly. I don’t have nightmares anymore and my drinking is very reasonable (hell, I don’t have time for hangovers). I wouldn’t say that book-selling and Borderlands saved my life – how could I know that? But I know that I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I’m very, very proud of what I’ve been able to build with the kindness and support of my friends (Jet, Bill, Valorie, Jhene, Rain, Hannah, AC, Molly, Tia, Jeremy, Liza, Jason, Loren, Claud, Mikael, Scott, Amanda, Thorn, Cary, Lisa, Heather, Francis, Maddy, Scott, and Ben), my family (Joe, Alexandra, Darran, Steven, Jim, James, Devany and most of all, Valerie and Jude, the two pillars that hold up my world), and you – my customers. Thank you all.
Part the Thirteenth
For the last year, we’ve been doing a special feature each month about what Borderlands is and how it got that way. This is the last of the special features, showcasing stories from customers about how they discovered the store.
I moved to San Francisco on November 10th, 1997 – 3 days before my 22nd birthday, and apparently, just after Borderlands opened. I don’t remember how I learned about the store, but it must have been a only few days after I arrived. I had an apartment, a small amount of money, no job, and a lot of time to wander around this new city I was already falling in love with. Somehow I found the store, and it’s charming owner, and it’s wonderful (if smallish, then) selection. It already felt like a great place, and I was impressed with the combination of polish and homeyness – as much as I appreciate the “scary cave” school of used bookstores, my eyes and sinuses prefer the Borderlands approach. Alan told me to come back for the ‘official’ grand opening. I did. Books started their inevitable flow from Hayes Valley to the pile next to my bed (and, occasionally, the other way).
Borderlands became a regular haunt, and I proudly introduced others to it when I could – new friends, old friends, my family when they visited, a charming & lovely woman from the east coast when she did.
10 years have passed. Borderlands has moved, expanded, changed, acquired new folks (Jude, Ripley, Jeremy, and the others). There’ve been amazing events: John Shirley getting flustered while reading an over-the-top story in front of a grade-school fan, David Brin heckling the audience, being introduced to Sean Stewart and Karen Joy Fowler at one go.
I’ve moved (SOMA to the mission, out to Mountain View, back to San Francisco and the sunset). The charming & lovely woman from the east coast moved west (and reader, I married her). We have a daughter. All along the way, this funny little bookstore with the Staff of Impeccable Taste, cozy feel, and hairless cat have been a part of it.
A decade later, I’m still in love with San Francisco. I stop by Borderlands whenever I can. It’s been a good 10 years. I look forward to the next ten.
– James Reffell
I’ve known Borderlands almost its whole life. I worked in a café around the corner in Hayes Valley when it first opened, and then was delighted when it moved over to the Valencia. I’ve found it to be one of the most welcoming, clean and well-designed bookstores I’ve ever met, with some of the loveliest people. I’m always made welcome and never made to feel rushed or uneasy about my literary choices (or anything else, for that matter).
Borderlands embodies something I had sought for quite some time in my life: the bookstore in the possessive sense. Don’t get me wrong, this is Alan’s shop, and we’re all clear on (and quite happy about) that. The thing that’s extra wonderful is that it’s my bookstore too, and it belongs to every one of its regulars.
“Where you headed?”
“Oh, thought I‚d head on down to my bookstore.”
“Yeah? Which is that?”
“Borderlands, the best sci-fi / fantasy / horror (or supernatural, depending on your particular bendy-bits) bookstore in the entire Bay Area.”
“Killer! Mind if I come along?”
“Heck, no. They sure won’t.”
Thanks Alan, Jude, Jeremy, Carrie, Heather, Francis, Claude, Ben, and all the evil-elves, for a shop that I can call home.
– Ian Carruthers
I met my husband at Borderlands! I had bought books from Tachyon via the old SF Book Festivals, and ebay, so I decided to attend the 2003 Tachyon Anniversary Party at Borderlands. I asked Alan to introduce me to Jacob Weisman, publisher, because a.) I wanted to buy a first edition of The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche from him; b.) I thought hey, Jacob’s cute! and c.) I thought, maybe he reads the same books I do!
Fast forward…like calls to like, and we were married this past June. We couldn’t have done it without Borderlands, as not only did they provide friendship (and advice!) BEFORE the wedding, but we registered at the store, Alan volunteered his services as DJ, and Jude and Carey were our fantastic bartenders, making sure all our guests were kept happy. We love you guys!
– Rina Wiseman
“Finding the Perfect Fix”
One of the ways that I know I’m upset is when I walk into a bookstore and nothing appeals to me. I’ll walk in, look blankly at the shelves of books, and maybe even look at one or two. But none of them break through the impenetrable cloud of gray that is me being upset.
When I first walked into Borderlands in January, I had plenty of reason to be upset. I had left my job in what amounted to the emotional equivalent of a very-bad-horrible-no-good breakup. And I was two weeks into what was my first real downtime since the insanity of my college career knocked me on my arse 7 years ago. And to top it off, I had read pretty much everything by every author that I already knew.
With the warm, dark wooden floor and the obviously loved rugs, Borderlands promised me something more than my grayness. See, generally these bookstores that I walk into when I’m looking for my literary fix are institutional chains. And trust me. I need that literary fix. I’m a book addict in the devouring books sense. In the generally reading at least one if not more books a week sense. In the horribly inconvenient, “tell me what author to read next because I’ve read everything already” sense.
The very lived in, loved in quality here pretty much turns to the gray shapelessness and says, ‘pshaw, I’ve seen your like before. I’ve owned you before and I’ll own you again now. Kneel or be vanquished.’ At which point the shapeless mass rolls in on itself, kneels and backs quickly in the direction of the exit.
So, back to January. I’ve been told by people that clearly since my fix of choice is sci-fi and fantasy, that I need to come check this place out. Clearly. So I finally get off my arse and get it down to the mission. I walk in, and wander around a bit. I think I actually picked up one book. Eventually I got up the nerve to bother the people in the office for a recommendation. Alan cheerfully came out and helped me. By helped, I mean spent 5-10 minutes walking around the store with me discussing which authors I liked and then free-associating books and authors he thought I might enjoy. And generally, he was on point. Especially for talking with me for all of ten minutes. He got me hooked on one series to the point where I preordered the latest in the series from england because it would take too long to come out in the US. Did I mention that I’m addicted to books?
From that first time, Borderlands has cemented itself in the list of my favorite places to go visit, to talk about and to recommend to others. Hell, I’ve even dragged several of my friends here, for author talks, or just generally to impress upon them the coolness of this place.
Because deep down, its people doing what they love even when its aggravating or otherwise not entirely perfect. And its that core of actual passion for the craft of the written fantastic that imbues the wooden floor with its warmth, the older rugs with their ‘well-loved’ look, and the air with the gray-defeating ninja-attitude. Its the atmosphere that I was looking for and never found at the previous job, and that one day I still hope I’ll find for myself. In the meanwhile, when I need my fix, I know where to find it.
– Hilary Karls
Thanks to everyone who took the time to contribute to this final article about the history of the store. Each of these stores has given the whole staff a smile and brightened our days. Thanks for the support and for the stories. I’m looking forward to the next ten years of them.