The Giving Tree


“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments,

but what is woven into the lives of others.”  – Pericles

The Giving Tree by Maria Fokas

The music filled my office like the sun fills the face of a flower eager to blossom, and then the phone rang. Three rings before I picked up the handset and put the receiver to my ear. It was my sister and she said she had some bad news…

I interrupted her, asking whether everyone was alright, and she replied that the bad news was of a different nature.

I panicked. The sound of her voice was melancholic. I felt that she was about to utter the kind of bad news that forces change upon us in some 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. And she said: BORDERS are closing shop.

A chain-bookstore in the United States has declared bankruptcy. The cultural center of the country I love is being deleted as I sit and take the news with an overwhelming fear of uncertainty. What does that mean? I thought to myself. Then I asked her if it was final. 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 didn't want to accept it. So after we hung up I went on a five-hour journey to investigate. I had to find out how the unsinkable idea which led so many of our voyages, managed to drop from the face of the earth – but more precisely, I was hoping to find some indication that this news was not accurate.

What my research 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. And then I got to thinking. You know when kids are concocting a lie, they sometimes go overboard not realizing that it is that very course which reveals their lie; the fact that they said too much. Like the excuses they give for not handing in their homework:

 “My mom threw my homework in the trash 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 in poop on my way to school this morning.” Deep inhale for a split moment --- “And then there was such strong wind that it just got wafted out of my hand. Sorry Miss Brown”, sad - sad face - exhale. The representatives really did sound like that little kid blurting out fantasy excuses to dodge punishment.

There was no question of why such an incident be considered “bad news for us” as my sister uttered. A business, which started out 40 years ago, as a mere 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.  Come next month, this will be a bookstore of the past; depressing, if you were ever a costumer at one of the many stores in America. 

Being overwhelmed by this news, I try to find the words to express the misfortune of the situation at hand. This breaking story is mournfully overpowering - 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. As CEO’S and shareholders are trying to cut their losses,  the real loss will be in the hearts and minds of those who fell in love with the endless prospects Borders was willing to offer. Those who felt the change – the change that made all the difference in the simple things that make our world meaningful; a tradition many will not be able to pass on to their children.

What the corporate heads and their partners are 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; and probably too late to turn back the clock on 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 remember experiencing in Borders every time they wanted to escape pressures and treat themselves to serenity. And like magic when they picked up that particular book or singled out that special song which made them feel better about themselves, feeling 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 a Borders again. I wonder about how it will feel like 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. To look into the nothingness staring back at me from within those walls and recall a time when it was bursting into life.

Then I look into my microcosm and wonder why! I was one of those customers that really did buy books; pounds and pounds of books enjoying precious moments of searching for the right one, while enjoying my sister’s frown as a question mark would shape her face every time I bought more than I could ship: “Where are you going to put all those books; think about the weight?” she’d say.

I recall the first time I stepped foot inside the one in Newark. During that particular visit to the States, I had prepared an endless list of books as usual. The moment I set foot inside the warm pastel 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. What a feeling!  And then I looked around at the faces of  the people walking by. I realized that I wasn't alone in this need. There were others there doing just that! I didn't know who they were in the sense of the word – 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. Then I got an idea.

I was going to become a member. A seller gave me a BORDERS rewards card – two actually. It was the first card by choice, I was truly proud to be carrying in my bag. I gave the second one to my sister. I still remember what she had said that day.

“Why are you getting a card, you’re only here in the summers?”

 And I replied, “Yes, but you’ll be here all year-round.” 

What she didn't know was that the card I had placed in 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 never told her was my secret wish; that she might one day feel the enthusiasm I did every time I stepped foot inside leaving an occasional dull world behind. So, you see, it wasn't just a bookstore for me. It was my Garden; a garden I spent comical and heartrending moments alone, but never lonely. My mind had created pathways to the imaginary worlds waiting to be discovered on the shelves; where the streets were nameless, but not lost  – where the heart of imagination was all you needed to get there.

Walking through the aisles, I felt the souls of the Authors regardless of time passed – their hearts beating between the lines of their stories waiting on the shelves to be discovered by a reader who was hoping to be overwhelmed. It wasn't about searching for something specific, but about freedom to be captivated by the unexpected – freedom to believe in magic – to hope – to connect with their imagined worlds through the power of the sprinkled word on paper. It was the home of ideas, and I could feel them as I walked through those sections. I found paperback stories and hardcover stories overflowing with life as I turned each soft, crisp page and merged with their worlds. I tried to imagine the marvel in the hearts of those writers – every time they succeeded in getting their story on the shelves to be shared by all of us.

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 that said “I was here” - A STORY – something to fill a lonely heart – a tearing soul – or someone just begging to be swept away.  All I wanted was a special place I could call my garden of dreams standing strong in the midst of life. 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 as you entered the bookstore; and I, always eager to visit that hospitable corner after my journey through the walkways holding a basket mounded with books. I would pull up a chair with coffee served at my table, and browse through my choices. I felt like a school girl playing truant under the sun in a spring breeze exited to be lost in a mythical world; having chosen genuine expression over frequent half-truths.

I recalled all the times I was found 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 I’d created and then sit down beside me to assist in the process of elimination. I remember my father wondering how I could possibly be spending so much time there without getting bored. He who has an impressive garden he adores – to observe the love he puts into caring for them. Funny how he didn't see books through my eyes like I saw his garden through his – He would know then why I never got bored with my garden.

Finally, I recollected all the times I wanted to hide from the world; one in particular. I walked into Borders, straight to the back (the children’s section) where everything was simple and no real rules applied. The walls painted with 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 feet; took me back to a time when things were simpler – a memory when I cared not to analyze the world and its ambiguities. I picked up a book I had read when I was just a little girl ‘The Giving Tree’,  found a corner that wasn't heaped with books, took my flip-flops off and sat myself down to read it. The tranquility and freedom embraced me. Basking in bliss, I stopped half-way through my reading, with the book opened and resting in my lap, I looked around to take it all in feeling the sweet silence healing my soul as I absorbed the moment. When I had finished the story I closed my eyes, in the calmness of the moment, I felt my existence, dwelling in tranquility, 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 prospect could exist – where Authors celebrated their success when signing their books for their readers. What would be the alternative now? Books boxed in warehouses, stacked and piled,  suffocating inside a 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 number of books and eBooks 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 for the feel of books in the wonder of the five senses that I didn't notice the changes taking place before my eyes? Is Capitalism to blame? 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 imagination where one does not reside. Not merely in its retailing ability but also in its contribution to civilization – whether it had the ability to inform – entertain – or bring back humanity wherever it was lost or lacking. Wasn't that part of the deal; to ensure our survival. Is this tragedy purely an indication that greed has decayed this art into an industry of product over service? 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. Does this surmise that we are more knowledgeable where it counts? Are our lives truly more meaningful due to the information revolution? What is it about ‘more’ that it coincides with better. Would it be plausible to suggest that we are now on the brink of losing reality faced with the assertion of numbers?

At the end of this journey, I do wish I was visiting my sister this summer, but instead I am mourning the loss thousands of miles of ocean away – quietly in the privacy of my own mind.  And as I gather the fragments of my reminiscing, I cannot help but wish I had the opportunity to step inside my garden for one last book – one I would treasure as my farewell book. I wish I could have been able to do that. I’d pick up that book I always took for granted to be there – the simple one, I’d lay on my lap in the back corner of my garden.

But then again, going back, I’d witness a Borders succumbing to defeat, degraded with naked shelves as a piercing chaotic atmosphere conquers the premises with dishonored sales, then slowly disappearing into nothingness.  So, I choose to remember Borders as the warm home I had found one mundane afternoon; an atmosphere of hospitality gifted with imagination, grace and unlimited potential -  an undying love to live on as I shut my eyes to the last sunrays of the day, and smile in the face of the memory and dreams.

  

In Memory of Borders/2011

© 2011 Maria Fokas All Rights Reserved

 

 

6 comments

  1. I love this true story as it captures perfectly the feelings of loss one experiences when a part of your inner world; your refuge is torn away from you! It reads very heartfelt. I wonder someday will there be any bookstores left.

    1. Thank you for taking the time Martin 🙂 Your comment got me to searching for a quote I love about the future …“The best way to predict your future is to create it” – Abraham Lincoln
      They say old habits die hard…and then there’s a thing called positive addictions, So for those who love the feel, smell, and taste of books, I hope we pass it on to our children. Yes, they may tease about how we’re living in a dead past, presenting us with eBooks, and audible stories, but let’s not listen to them, cause in the end, our words will echo in their beautiful minds, and nothing will be lost 🙂

      1. I hope you’re right Maria. On many a wintry night my dad Nicholas, would bring me to the local library even though I was too young to borrow books from it myself. I loved going there in the evening with him and they are still some of my fondest memories of our time together. I would often annoy him to get me a history book and he’d always oblige.And as we left, Queenie the stern looking librarian would wink knowingly at me t.May they both rest in peace in a library on the other side of the sky….:)

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