No sobs here for the demise of Borders

Blue awnings, red financials for Borders

[NOTE: Borders announced on July 18, five months to the day after I wrote this piece, that it was unable to find a buyer and was closing all of its stores and liquidating its stock. In an email three days later to Borders Rewards members, CEO Mike Edwards in “A Fond Farewell” said the firm was unable to overcome “headwinds . . . including a rapidly changing book industry, the E-reader revolution and a turbulent economy.” Going out of business sales were to run July22-31.]

I ventured into Borders at the upscale Biltmore mall yesterday afternoon in Phoenix.  It was a day after the bookseller, Borders Group, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the place already had the hollow ring of death to it.  This store, No. 54 and the largest Borders in Arizona, will close the last of April along with about 200 of the chain’s other behemoths.  The cafe on the second floor was to serve its last coffee and pastry later that night, a clerk said.

I shed not a tear, for Borders was a predator, a mercenary, an unwieldy corporation that swept into town during the early 1990s and killed off smaller, high-quality and locally-owned shops along pricey East Camelback Road.  Stores like Houle’s at Uptown Plaza and particularly  Dushoff’s at the corner of 32nd Street.   Not to say I didn’t patronize the Biltmore Borders.  I did.  It was virtually the only game in town.

The last moments of the cafe.

This was once a lively store.  Even as late as last Christmas, you had to stand in a long serpentine line for 10 minutes or more to make a purchase from one of a half-dozen cashiers.  Nebra and I often spent  Saturday night  in the cafe with our coffees and teas and pastry, poring over books and maps.  That is if we could find a place to sit.  We even planned a few of our trips there.  Some weekends there was entertainment.  I remember a jazz combo playing with the local radio host  Blaze Lantana as the emcee.  And although I never attended one, there used to be book signings by authors, some of them even famous.  But now it was so-long, it’s been good to know you

I had been a part of the store’s undoing.  My book-buying habits began to change about a decade ago.

Change came not long after I purchased a fancy PC and an AOL account in 1998.  I soon discovered shopping online was cheaper and quicker than trying to find parking space at the Biltmore and browsing the Borders vast inventory.  It was even enjoyable shopping online.  And if I was going to shop corporate, why not with Amazon? Although I still spent good money at Borders, it became less and less over the years.  Later after I began to collect first editions, another discovery popped up online, Advanced Book Exchange.  And last Christmas I received an e-reader, a Nook, from Nebra.  The Nook is OK, but I love the feel of a real book in my hands and sight of a colorful dust jacket.  I suspect that wherever the physical book industry goes from here, I will tag along.

Not exactly humming a few days after bankruptcy filing

At Borders, the “Going Out of Business” signs had not yet gone up on the large display windows.  But the vultures were swooping in.    The company hired to liquidate the stock was in place, a skeleton crew that communicated largely by head phones and treated patrons indifferently.  A few customers wandered about and occasionally one made a purchase from the sole cashier. The old employees were gone.  Off to another job, or perhaps to join the unemployment lines.  I feel bad about that but nothing else. 

Soon there will be no new-book seller in central Phoenix.  The giant Bookstar, west a few blocks from the Biltmore in Town & Country mall,  closed a month ago.

Store 54 was still breathing when I left but with a soul as dead as can be.

I wondered if something good might not come of all this.  Maybe those small, locally-owned book stores will return in some fashion.  Big is not always best.  In fact it is seldom  best.

The ghost letters of the shuttered Bookstar on East Camelback
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A day in the life of Ray Horton

It’s early morning, still dark.  I’m already at my office in Tempe.  I’m excited and scared.  Just two days ago — gawd, seems longer than that —  I was named defensive coordinator of the Cardinals.  That’s good.  I’m going to make a lot more money than I was with the Steelers.  On the other side, I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a coordinator.  I’ve never been one before.  Hell, I’m almost 51.  I know what the critics say about me, that I’m a risky hire.  I know that.  I know there was not much of a selection process.  I feel like my name was just picked out of a hat, that I got this job just because I was a Steelers coach and the head man here, Mike, I mean Kenny, uh Coach, loves everything Steelers.  He’s kind of crazy that way, but he’s given me a shot.

And what about the owners, the Bidwills, or is it Bidwells?  Are they going to spend the jack to get me some decent players?  I hear scary stories about them.  This ain’t Pittsburgh.  Hope the Rooneys, no dammit, the Bidwills, know that.  We need lots of help out here.

But I know this. I am going to work my buns off to be a success.  Running scared is a good way to approach any new job, they say.  That’s me, I’m scared.  I don’t want to fail.  So here I am, breaking down film, trying to get this nomenclature stuff done so I can send it out to the players before the CBA deadline.  March 4,   I’ve got that date circled on my calendar.  Gonna circle it again.  Yeh, a double-circle.

There’s a another number I got circled.  It’s not on a calendar.  It’s ingrained in my head.  It’s on a jersey.  Number 24.  Gonna double-circle that one too.   Adrian Wilson.  If I’m going to be a success here, I’ve got to find a way to use his talents better than the last coordinator did.   I’ve got a long list of things to do, but someway very soon, everyday really, I’ve got to work on Adrian.  Does he still have it?  He made All-Pro last year, but Coach told me he didn’t deserve it.  If anyone did it was Kerry Rhodes. 

Lots of negativity.  Got to put it aside.  Then again, what about the corn-rows?  I’m worn the rows for a while now.  But this is the West.  This is, for god’s sake, Arizona.  Not too many blacks out here.  And the white folks?  They’re pretty strange.  Carrying heat into the capitol!  And all those crazy laws.  I know.  Can’t worry about them.  But maybe I should lose the rows.  Maybe the white players will take it wrong.  But really, there’s not that many of them. 

And the fans?  I hear most of ’em don’t know squat about football.  Not like they do in Steelerland, anyway.  But how long can you pull wool over their eyes?   Surely they see by now we have a ton of holes to fill, that without Warner they wouldn’t have won diddle.

Yeah, lots of problems.  Linebackers?  I need linebackers, a good pass rusher, another corner.  I don’t know if Toler can cut it at corner.  And I’ve got to toughen up DRC.  Jeez, there’s so much to do, so little time.  It’s starting to jumble up on me. 

Keep cool, keep cool.  One step at a time.  But Adrian.  I’ve got to work on Adrian.  He was a game-wrecker several seasons ago.  If we’re going to run an attacking defense, he’s going to have to get more involved.  Forget that old system.  Bend but don’t break, that  isn’t the way we Steelers do it.  Oh, here I go again, thinking I’m still Pittsburgh.

The hidden Oahu and the Pali Highway

In the beginning, many might say, the gods created Waikiki, that highrise hotel and shopping mecca with a beach beside it on Oahu.  The haole, or visitor, never has to leave the area to get what may be seen as the “real Hawaii experience.”   And, for the adventuresome, a luau, North Shore’s giant winter waves, the Polynesian Cultural Center are just a tour bus away.  There is no time to immerse yourself in the other Oahu before you’re back home, safe and snug with a beach rug, on Waikiki.

The real Oahu, or as close these days as the traveler may come, is on the far side of the Koolau mountains, on the Windward or eastern shore.  And even then, you must drive north, away from the military towns of Kane’ohe and Kailua, to find anything close to the remnants of the old island culture. 

This narrow strip along the Pacific is the most beautiful part of Oahu, yet raw and still hidden.  It is a land of spectacular green mountains, rain forests and small but attractive beaches that are mostly used by locals.  So far there are no hotels or resorts here, no tourism of consequence.  The Koolaus have protected it.   We discovered the history one early afternoon driving down to Hanauma Bay to snorkel. 

Near the mountain pass of the Pali Highway connecting Honolulu with Kane’ohe, there is a turn-off leading to a windy lookout point at Nu’uanu State Park.  It is a short drive of about a mile and a quarter through dense forest to a $3 self-pay parking lot.  From there, it is an easy walk up to the lookout that offers a grand easterly view of Kane’ohe and Kailua far below.  The park rests near the site of the Battle of Nu’uanu where King Kamehameha won unification of all the Hawaiian islands.  As a bonus we found in signs and plaques a history of the Pali Highway, the most modern version with its tunnels being built in 1957.

For the longest time the only way to get to the Windward shore from Honolulu was by canoe or treacherous mountain trail.  The Rev.Reuben Tinker wrote of his harrowing experience on the trail in 1831:

The pass was almost too fearful to be enjoyed.  I suffered from apprehension lest I should fall from the rocky steep.  I took off my shoes and by setting my feet in the crevices of the rock, I worked myself along, assisted by a native who saw nothing but to wonder at my awkwardness and fear of passing this grand highway.

The first Pali road to the Windward was completed in 1898.   By then, commercial development was all around Honolulu, and even to this day Kane’ohe and especially Kailua are quiet residential towns. 

One sees changes coming, though.  The Pali Highway is now only one of three arteries leading from Honolulu to the Windward.  Tour buses ply the once-lonely Kamehameha Highway (83) to the expensive Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie.  The Mormons have taken a toe-hold nearby with a large temple and the sect’s Brigham Young University-Hawaii.  And not too far away on North Shore rests the high-dollar Turtle Bay Resort with its rich-green manicured golf course running along the highway. 

The beauty and solitude of the Windward shore has not been lost on film-makers.  Kualoa Ranch has been location to the likes of Jurassic Park and TV dramas.  This week’s  episode of the new Hawaii Five-O had scenes supposedly set at Kahuku, the most northern town on the Windward side.   

Locals cry out in futility.   Hand-written signs dot the highway north.  No more development, says one.  Another pleads for island sovereignty, like the Native American tribes on the mainland. 

The inevitable building of the Pali Highway was a blessing to some.  But it is a symbol too of the curse of commercialization that seemingly awaits this still mostly pristine part of the island.

It is all reminiscent of a line in the old Eagles song, “The Last Resort:”   You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.

The Big Yawn: Cardinals hire a defensive coordinator

The Cardinals finally answered one of the three big questions facing the team after a horrible 2010 season.  They named a defensive coordinator today, Ray Horton, from, of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers staff.  It has become a joke here and in Pittsburgh that the Arizona team is really Steelers West.  If you do not have a Steelers pedigree, be it Cardinals coach or player, chances are you will soon be replaced by someone who does.  Such is the insecurity of the head coach, Ken Whisenhunt.  

The Whiz’s top three choices, if you’re dumb enough to believe what you read, were, in order, Dick LeBeau,  Keith Butler and, hoo-ray, hoo-ray, Horton.  All coaches last season for the Super Bowl runners-up Steelers.  LeBeau the 70-something guru and coordinator was not going anywhere.  Certainly he was not going to make a career change at that age and start over in Arizona with a defense that was light years from where the Steelers were in ’10.  The other pipe-dream the Cardinals would have you believe was Butler, the linebackers coach and reputedly a close friend of Whisenhunt’s.  And why would the Cardinals think he could leave?   He is under contract and the Steelers sweetened the pot a year ago so he would not leave for a coordinator’s job with Miami.  He is supposedly the heir-apparent to LeBeau.  Anyway the Cardinals figure it will make them look good if they throw the names of LeBeau and Butler about.  So that leaves only Horton, the secondary coach, the Steelers were apparently not going to rehire.  In other words, there was no diligent search for a coordinator.  It was Horton all the time, or so it appears.

Horton may turn out to be a great fit for the Cardinals.  But there is nothing on his resume to suggest that.  He will soon be 51 and has spent his entire NFL coaching career as a secondary coach.  This in a league that has an eager eye for young coaching talent and will promote that talent very quickly.   That it has taken more than 15 years for anyone to recognize the genius in Ray Horton does not seem to bode a brilliant future for the Cardinals defense, which clung to the bottom rungs on the stats charts last season.

One can easily argue that coordinators are only as good as their players.  But look what Kansas City did last year.  The Chiefs hire two high-dollar coordinators, Romeo Crennel on defense and Charlie Weis on offense, and they zipped in to the playoffs from a 2009 season that was even worse than the Cardinals in ’10.   

Time will tell.  But on the surface it appears the hiring of Ray Horton is another cost-friendly decision by the owning Bidwill family, who pulled in financial horns last year, shed talent and replaced it with aging veterans like Joey Porter and Alan Faneca.   And too the Horton hire does not paint a rosy picture for the other two big questions:  Who will be the starting quarterback?  Will their super-talented wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, sign a new contract with the team or move on? 

That’s of course forgetting the largest question:  Will there be a full 2011 season if a Collective Bargaining Agreement takes as long to achieve as it now seems it might?

Caged at Waikiki

It is early afternoon a week ago, and we’re driving along North Shore on Oahu.  We’re looking for Ehukai Beach Park.  It is there that world-class surfers are trying to ride the giant waves of Bonzai Pipeline.  Though it is an elite competition mentioned on the 10 o’clock news on the South Shore in Honolulu, no signs are visible up here as we travel the busy two-lane Highway.   Nothing would even tell you this is Ehukai Beach. 

While North Shore is only about a 40-mile drive from Waikiki, it is in a very real sense much, much farther away.  

Away from Honolulu and its tourist mecca along Waikiki beach, you often have to guess to find pristine places on the island.  Or ask.  Or take a tour bus.  If you are not a local, Oahu makes it rough on you away from the small confines of Waikiki.  The other Oahu is, charmingly,  a land of jungle drums and word of mouth.  It’s as if  Hawaii’s “powers that be” want the beautiful Oahu kept hidden and would enjoy nothing more than caging tourists on Waikiki.

Kiailua, the city where we stayed on the eastern shore, is home to Kailua Beach, which has been rated as the No. 1 beach in the world.  But you can not find it easily.  In town, there are no “To the Beach” signs.  To get there, you have to travel jagged streets, follow your instincts.  Of course.  Locals know how to get there.  That’s what is important.  Kialua, like much of Oahu beyond Waikiki, is not a big tourist destination.   It has no big hotels or beachfront inns.  It is largely a military town.  A Marine Corps base is on the north, an air force base to the south.  We stayed at a small suite of rooms in a home in a very residential part of the city for $100 a night.

Kailua’s recent claim to fame comes from President Obama’s holidays.  He and has family have vacationed in the area at least twice.  He stays a few miles north on Kane’ohe Bay.   But even Obama’s favorite shave-ice place, Island Snow, in Kailua, does not try to capitalize on his business.   The little store in a tiny shopping center not far from the beach does not sport a single photo of Obama and his daughters ordering up a shave-ice.  There is not even a sign saying “Obama ate here.” 

The island’s only freeways — H1, H2 and H3 — all come together in a jumble northwest of Honolulu, creating a Great Barrier Reef of its own.  Many tourists, I imagine, find their vehicles spun around in this unclearly-marked mess and heading back toward Waikiki, Aloha Stadium, the airport or Pearl Harbor. 

Just to find our lodging in Kailua, Yahoo maps presented us with 14 tedious turnoff points in the 18.96 miles from the Honolulu airport.  If you travel to Waikiki, no problem.  Plenty of signs.

For our last night in Oahu, we took a room at Paradise Bay Resort, in Kahalu’u, four miles north of Kaneohe.  You likely won’t find this rural community on a map.  And we had to call for directions to the “resort,” which was more like a motel.  No signs on the highway.  We were to turn off at an “orange building” and wend our way around half-paved streets.  We even drove past the resort, failing to notice the small sign in front.  But it was nice, clean place with a breath-taking morning view from the lanai of the tropical Koolau mountains. 

On North Shore, the beaches are best marked by parked cars along the highway.  The more cars, the bigger the beach.  Waimea Beach Park has no road sign but  is distinctive with a nearby bridge, stream and secondary bay.  But the other two big surfing beaches, Ehukai and Sunset? 

Two heavy middle-aged white men with long beards leaned up against a car, apparently admiring the surf as dusk approached.  “Is this Sunset Beach?” I asked one of them.  “You found it,”  he said.   It shouldn’t have been even that difficult. 

I suspect the confusion and lack of signage are by design, driven by two forces.  One, Waikiki commercial interests who want you to spend all your money on their little spit of land, every trip to North Shore, say, taking dollars out of their greedy pockets.  Two, Oahu locals who do not want to see their land destroyed by rich haoles, or foreigners, and highrise development.  

Paradise has its limits.