March 01, 2007

Origin of the Bookstore, Part the Fifth - The Decor, or "Is this a library or do you sell books?"

For the next eight months we'll be doing a special feature each month in honor of Borderlands' upcoming 10th Anniversary (November 3rd, 2007). We'll share some stories about what Borderlands is and how it got that way.

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?"

"Ummm, wood?"

"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.

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