Former Borders employees share experiences seeking work after bookstore's closure
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Editor's note: Karen Shellie's name has been corrected in the photo caption.
The Ann Arbor-founded-and-based bookstore chain Borders announced it was liquidating on July 18, 2011. Four hundred workers in the area were without jobs. Since then, most, but not all, of those who worked at Borders have found a new path. Throughout this week, AnnArbor.com is profiling former Borders employees who have (or have not) moved on to new opportunities. This is the second of two stories.
Former Borders employee Peter Drogaris does not currently have a full-time job. But he does not want anyone to get the impression that he is downtrodden or bitter.
“I’m pretty optimistic, and I’ve been optimistic all along,” he said.
Drogaris was one of the 400 Ann Arbor employees left without a job when Borders announced July 18, 2011 that it planned to liquidate, putting an end to the chain's 40-year existence.
Drogaris worked for Waldenbooks in Stamford, Conn., before transferring to Ann Arbor when the book chain merged with Borders in 1992. When he finally stopped working for the book store on July 29, 2011, he had been with the chain for more than 20 years. Searching for a job was not something he was used to.
“It was an eye-opening experience because I haven’t been in this situation since 1990,” Drogaris said.
He wore a number of hats at Borders, most recently as store operations administrator, analyst and project manager. His LinkedIn page is full of glowing recommendations from former co-workers at Borders — co-workers he still keeps in touch with and considers good friends.
“The former employees have been pretty exceptional as far as helping each other out,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people post things about open positions with a company they work at or something they heard about.”
Despite the support, Drogaris has yet to find full-time permanent employment. This does not mean that he has been without work — from November to June, he worked as a technical writer at a local technology company on a part-time contract basis.
Drogaris said he enjoyed the work, the pay was good, and the company has contacted him about doing similar work in the future. However, he’s still searching for a more stable job.
“It’s definitely a substantial amount of time I spend just about every day looking for positions and applying,” he said.
“Usually it’s several resumes posted or emails sent every week in response to open positions.”
Drogaris said he was behind in the process compared with some of his co-workers.
“I got a bit of a late start because I didn’t start really looking until after my last day. I held out hope that things would come around.”
The hope was based on speculation that a buyer might come in and save the chain that Drogaris said meant a lot to him both as an employee, and a consumer.
“I haven’t really become accustomed to shopping anywhere else for books yet,” he admitted.
“For now I guess I just have a lot of books that I stocked up. Eventually I’m sure I’ll shop at one of the local stores or at Barnes and Noble, but it’s been hard to deal with just not having the store there and the comfortable place to go.”
Interviews have been coming frequently, including one phone interview Tuesday morning and an in-person interview scheduled for Friday. Drogaris feels confident that one will soon lead to a job offer.
“I was very fortunate to have been employed by Borders for as long as I was, and I know that I’ll have a new employer soon,” he said.
Working for a cause
Borders hired Karen Shellie to open its stores in the McNamara terminal at the Detroit Metro Airport. Her last act as a Borders employee was closing the store she was managing in Livonia in September of 2011.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
“The sweet part was knowing that we still went out with a bang.”
Shellie said she and her fellow employees at the Livonia location worked crazy hours and worked closely with the liquidators to sell as much from the store as possible.
“The thing about Borders employees is that we were committed no matter what. We understood we were liquidating and that our creditors deserved to be paid,” she said. “I guess that’s why we make such good employees anywhere we go.”
As she was preparing to close the store, Shellie said that she came to a calming realization that she had been through enough transitions in her life that this one ceased to scare her.
While she had always worked in the corporate world, after her experience at Borders, she was drawn to the nonprofit sector. She now is the manager of corporate relationships for Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley, a job she started in June.
“It’s not about the money at Habitat, it’s about making the world a better place,” she explained.
“I guess working with books was sort of the same, looking back on it. You could introduce people to whole new worlds.”
After closing the Borders in Livonia, Shellie went back to school to prepare herself to work for a company whose primary motivation was not making money.
After receiving a graduate certificate in non-profit management from Eastern Michigan University, she began networking in search of a position in her new chosen field.
“I got an email from a job group at church that there was an opening at Habitat [for Humanity],” she said.
“I didn’t get that position, but they called me later and said they were opening a new position and they thought I’d be a good fit.”
Shellie now works encouraging corporate entities to support Habitat and sponsor houses that the local chapter builds.
“I’m not going to say it was always easy [searching for a job], but it was a path I had to walk and I’m glad I did,” she said.
“Transitioning to Habitat was a great experience. They do so much good work, and I’m just glad to be a part of it now.”
From Harry Potter to tents and knives
“Adults are sometimes afraid of being kids books buyers, but that was my passion,” Susan Aikens said.
Aikens worked for Borders for 17 years, and finished as the senior buyer for children’s and pre-teen fiction. Like most who worked at Borders for an extended period, she was devoted to the company and the people who worked there.
“I worked all the way through August 2011 because I couldn’t bear the thought that something might happen to save the company and I would already be gone,” she said.
Aikens’ final day was Aug. 30, when she set out to find her next job. Through networking and participation with the Borders Next Chapter Joint Adjustment Committee, she heard her about a job opening that she thought would fit her talents. She started in early December. It also was a buying position, but a slightly different inventory.
“I am now the camping buyer at Dunham's, so I buy all the equipment you could think of related to camping or backpacking,” she said.
“All of the tents, camping furniture, knives, flashlights, coolers, and sleeping bags are mine. I even take care of the airguns and paintball guns. It’s a tough learning curve. I had always been a book retailer.”
While in her personal life she’s had outdoors experiences, and she feels that her family is quite “outdoors-y,” Aikens said it was definitely a whole different experience working with the outdoors equipment.
“I was just like ‘wow.’ It’s a very different industry, and it’s somewhat male dominated,” she said.
“It’s both the customers and the reps that I work with. In kids books the majority of people were female, so it’s definitely different.”
Aikens’ husband Scott was at Borders until 2008. He was hired by an Ann Arbor company, Eat Local, Eat Natural, just three months after he left Borders.
Her new job is farther away than his and is much farther than the 15 minute bike-ride she had to work at Borders. Aikens now spends anywhere from 2 ½ to four hours a day in a car commuting to and from Waterford.
However, she said that staying in Michigan was a priority for her and her husband, both of whom grew up in the state.
“We were both thrilled that we were able to find employment so quickly,” she said. “Especially because we had been committed to staying in Michigan, and working for Michigan companies.”