The Giving Tree by Maria Fokas
The music caressed my office like the sun caresses the face of a flower grateful to be alive in its moment of blossom. The warmth of its touch consumed me and took me away from the present moment of chores and tedious thoughts of routine; and then the phone rings to interrupt.
Three rings before I pick up the handset and put receiver to ear.
It was my sister.
She said that she had some bad news. “Is everyone alright?”, I asked. She replied that the news was of a different kind of bad.
I panicked. I felt that she was about to utter something that forces change in some unexpected way. She gave me but a few seconds before she told me. No time for me to expect anything remotely close to the reality which was taking place overseas.
BORDERS are closing shop! A chain-bookstore in the United States has declared bankruptcy. The cultural center of my home, deep-rooted in my heart, is being deleted; and as I sit silently to take the news in, a voice inside my head tries to calm me down.
I ask her if it is final. After a long pause, I ask again –
“A letter was sent to the members by one of their representatives”, she told me – explaining the main reasons for the liquidation. But of course, I wasn’t going to accept that.
After we hung up, I went on a five-hour investigation. I had to find out for myself how an unsinkable bookstore managed to be facing such a death – but more precisely, hoping to find some indication that this news was not accurate.
What my search concluded, was that in less than a month Borders would become a notion of the past. I read numerous accounts of the situation with no clear answers to the cause of this fate bestowed upon my haven. Then, it came to me . . . you know when kids are concocting a lie, they sometimes go overboard not realizing that it is that overreacting which reveals their lie; the fact that they say too much to cover it up; like the excuses they give for not handing in their homework: “My mom threw my homework out by mistake” and then… “when she realized what she had done, it was too late, as the dog saw it and ate it” and… “the little piece I managed to get out of snoopy’s mouth, I had to clean my shoe with because I stepped on poop on my way to school this morning.” Then a deep inhale for a split moment — “and then there was such strong wind that the little piece I was holding got wafted out of my hand. Sorry, Miss Brown”, – sad face – exhale. The representatives did sound like the little kid blurting out fantasy excuses to dodge punishment.
A business, which started out on a quest to celebrate the written word by creating a special home for second-hand treasures of the human mind 40 years ago, was an idea of two young brothers. Tom and Louis Borders, graduates at the University of Michigan, began by selling used books in a room above 209 State Street, north of the State Theater. But come next month, this will be a bookstore of the past; depressing if you were ever a customer at one of the many stores in America.
The first Borders store at 209 S. State / 1971
Being overwhelmed by this news, I try to find the words to express the misfortune of the situation at hand. The closing down of its last 400 of 1200 stores, leaving more than nineteen thousand people out of work is a tragedy in itself. But why should I care living thousands of miles away; in another country? Why should I be affected by this news? This does sound inflated to an extreme when compared to other tragedies of the world like famine or war, but I hope I’m not alone when I say that so much more will be lost than what is being broadcasted on the news throughout America these days; so much more is dying here; things that won’t be discerned in any numbers of statistics while analysts attempt to make sense of it all for a while and then forgotten as a thing of the past. As CEOs and shareholders are trying to cut their losses, the real loss will be in the hearts of those who fell in love with the endless prospects Borders was offering so generously. The beginning of a new era of how books will be sold in the future.
What the corporate heads and their partners were hiding from all the stories of who is to blame, as they calculate how much they’ve lost with their big ego in the way, will be felt under our skin in time; a countdown for other bookstores to disappear around the world if attitudes don’t change.
I’ll tell you what else knots my throat as I try to rationalize: The moments of tranquility thousands of individuals will recall experiencing in Borders every time they wanted to escape from pressures of life and treat themselves to serenity. And like magic when they stepped into this magical place – and picked up that one book or singled out that special song which made them feel the warmth of the sun without the sun present – that will be missed! I know because I miss it already.
I wonder about how difficult it will be when I go back, knowing that I will never walk into my Borders again. I wonder about how it will feel to drive into that shopping center, stop in front of the entrance doors to see another business occupying the space or worse yet to see it empty; nothingness staring back at me from within those walls and not a sign of a time when it was bursting into life. Then I look into my tiny world and wonder why! I was one of those customers that did buy books from Borders; endless books; enjoying precious moments searching for the right one while my sister’s frown shaped her face every time I bought more than I could ship over to Greece. “Where are you going to put all of them; all that weight!” she’d exclaim.
I recall the first time I stepped foot inside the one in Newark. I had prepared an endless list of all the books I needed. Setting foot inside the warm orange-hued premises, it seemed like time had stopped as I strolled through the aisles visiting the different sections. I wanted to be left alone as I plunged into this incredible world I had just discovered. I looked around at the faces of the people walking by. I wasn’t alone in this wonderland. There were others there too, doing just that! I didn’t know who they were – nothing about their lives – their hardships – their names – but what I did know was that in the realm of a chosen world we were all connected by our love for stories. I became a member. An assistant gave me a BORDERS rewards card – two actually. It was the first card I was truly proud to be carrying in my bag. I gave the second one to my sister.
“Why are you getting a card, you’re only here in the summers?”, she said. And I replied, “But you’ll be here all year-round.”
What she didn’t know then was that the card I had placed in the palm of her hand that day was a gift of a world I wanted her to belong to – a world that would give her joy as she wandered through those aisles – the joy I would feel knowing she was there! What I had never told her was my hope that she might one day feel the enthusiasm I did every time I stepped foot inside my haven, leaving an occasional dull world outside those walls.
So, you see, it wasn’t just a bookstore to me. It was my garden; a garden I spent heartfelt moments alone, but never lonely. My mind had created pathways to those imaginary worlds waiting to be discovered on the shelves; where the streets had no names, but you could always arrive at your destination without getting lost. Walking through the aisles, I felt the souls of authors regardless of time passed – their hearts beating between the lines of those pages waiting on the shelves to be discovered by a reader who was hoping to be swept away. It wasn’t about searching for something specific, but about the freedom to be captivated by the unexpected – freedom to believe in magic – to hope – to connect with other worlds. It was the home of ideas, of promises and warm welcomes. I could feel them all as I walked through the sections. I found paperback and hardcover stories overflowing with life as I turned each soft, crisp page. I felt the gratitude in the hearts of all those storytellers – every time they imagined someone picking their story out of an endless selection waiting to be discovered on those shelves. For me it was my sanctuary; a reminder that anything is possible – that in this one life there is a chance to make our mark and leave something behind which says “I WAS HERE”.
There is so much to recall sitting here alone trying to accept what I cannot change: I remember the aroma of Seattle’s coffee; vanilla latte and cinnamon buns, located in the right-hand corner of the entrance door; that hospitable little corner I would always make a stop after my journey through the walkways, holding a basket mounded with books. I would pull up a chair with coffee served at my litle round table, and browse through my choices. I felt like a schoolgirl playing truant under the sun in a spring breeze exited to be lost in my chosen world; a world filled with genuine expression and not frequent half-truths. I recalled all the times I was caught under a pile of books, with my bangs in my face plunged in those pages and, how my sister would smile patiently, counting the stacks and, then sitting down beside me to assist in the difficult process of elimination.
– Wait. I know what will happen – Borders will be back! – Under a different name but they will be back! – There will be a sign of some sort; a clue that it is still the same place…we will see that sign – What a comforting thought!
And then, an image of my last visit: I am walking to the back; the children’s section. I take off my flip-flops and begin my search. The walls are painted in soft hues of orange and avocado, five-foot-high lemon drop wooden bookshelves stacked with colorful books and a thick blue-sky hued carpet, patterned with the planets and stars below my bare feet. It took me back decades – when I cared not to analyze the ambiguities of the world but merely to experience it.
I found a favourite I had read when I was just a little girl, ‘The Giving Tree’, and sat in a corner that wasn’t heaped with books. I stopped half-way through, the book resting on my lap, I looked around to take it all in. After turning the last page, I closed my eyes; in the calmness of the moment, my existence, a tiny ray of light in the corner of my ‘Giving Tree’.
So, what does the future hold for bookstores, faced with this calamity? I wish I knew. Borders sparked in me a hope that allowed me to look to a future where prospects could exist – where authors celebrated their success, signing their books for their readers. What would be the alternative now? Books boxed in warehouses, stacked and piled, suffocating inside darkness waiting to be bought through a few clicks of a mouse or soon to be forgotten completely because of the new technology of eBooks taking over the book industry as we speak. What is the alternative for writers? Writers celebrating their success in front of a computer screen as they log onto shopping websites to check the numbers they’ve sold only to feel their victory boxed inside a virtual world.
Could this be the end of books as we know them? Has it been the end for a while? Was I so blinded by my love of the feel and smell of stories that I didn’t notice the changes that would soon take away this experience altogether? I wish I knew the answers to these questions, but I don’t.
I had hoped that the measure of success of a book was in its power to create hope; not merely in its retailing ability – but in its contribution to civilization – whether it had the ability to inform, entertain, or bring back humanity wherever it was lost or lacking; it was this power that brought it to life – wasn’t this part of the way we’ve ensured our humanity? Is this tragedy purely an indication that greed has decayed this art into an industry of product over service? The other day I heard someone at a local coffee shop say, “. . . we are moving into an era where more opportunity for more books to be sold will take precedence. And who said more is always better? We live in a time where more information is at the tip of our fingers than ever before. But does being more knowledgeable actually coexist with transformation? Are our lives truly more meaningful due to the information revolution? I have no answers – again. But, I wish I were visiting my sister this summer – to mourn my loss quietly in the privacy of my thoughts is not how I’d like to say goodbye.
And as I gather the fragments of my reminiscing, I cannot help but grieve for the opportunity lost – to step inside my garden for one last story – one I would treasure as my farewell story. I’d pick up that last book, and lay it on my lap one last time, in the back corner of my garden. And after that, I’d never drive there again. I would not witness a Borders succumbing to defeat, degraded by naked shelves, in a piercing chaotic atmosphere with dishonored sales – slowly disappearing into nothingness.
So, the silver-lining of no farewells: to remember Borders as the warm and caring home I had found one mundane afternoon – an atmosphere of hospitality, gifted with imagination, grace and unlimited potential.
As I shut my eyes to the last sunrays of the day, and smile in the face of the memory of dreams, a whisper of rebirth from the ashes of my haven, meets me half way, and I hope once more.
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” – Pericles
In Memory of Borders/2011 © 2011 Maria Fokas All Rights Reserved