October 01, 2007

Origin of the Bookstore, Part the Twelfth - The Real Story

For the last eleven months, 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 regular features, but we'll be doing a special, final "Origin" next month highlighting customers' stories.

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.

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