To determine whether the declared distinctions between Borders and Barnes & Noble are relevant--or even real--Maria Alderink, a Minneapolis-based lawyer and fiction lover, recently went to both stores and made the same request: "Suggest an author similar to Margaret Atwood" (a popular fiction writer whose work includes The Handmaid’s Tale and The Robber Bride). Her experiences at the two stores were surprisingly dissimilar, exemplifying the way each shop really does use employees to differentiate itself from the competition.
At Borders, it took several minutes for the first person she asked to find the store’s "fiction expert," a wiry, heavily perfumed young woman in pigtails and a tight sundress. When she heard Alderink’s request, the woman lit up, going on and on about the density of Atwood’s work while taking her on a tour of several authors Alderink had never read or even heard of. She ended up buying a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, then headed to Barnes & Noble.
When she made the same request there, the first person she asked--a middle-aged woman in a neat polo shirt, navy slacks and matching cardigan--was immediately ready to help, and other salespeople quickly joined in the hunt, Alderink says.
They were eager to help her, but their suggestions were mostly best-sellers such as Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone. "They were all great books, but I’d read most of them."
The variety of responses to the same request demonstrates how the stores adhere to their unique business visions through the inventory and the people who sell it. "I was surprised at how different the experiences were," Alderink says.