The death of a giant

 

I saw a giant die today.

Giants have a unique way of their own. They come into the world with a bang. Everyone notices their arrival. People look upto them in awe. When they flex their muscle, others run for cover. They forge their own path. More often than not, they trample over others who stand in their way. Occasionally it is on purpose, as the giant sees the others as a minor obstacle which needs to be brushed aside like a fly. Most often they don’t even notice the ones trampled, for they are not in their line of sight. The hapless ones were merrily going their own way, till they realized too late that the giant had also chosen to take the path they were on. As the giant marches on, it collect accolades and occasionally brickbats. Many a times they can get drunk in their own success, and not even notice that another bigger, stronger giant is on their path.

And then, after a while …. they die.

They get crushed by a bigger, newer giant on the block. Their death is often more spectacular and feted than their birth. It is always like a supernova. A brilliant flash of light, thundering explosions that can be heard and felt light years away. And as they die, they take many others with them.

As they fall to the ground, they don’t pass away quickly. They lie there and whimper, struggle and prolong their agony. They attract vultures and on lookers by the truckload. The vultures peck away and the parts that they find the juiciest and the tastiest. As the vultures come and go, they leave behind a giant, which is little smaller, uglier, disfigured, more hapless. The vultures go and pass on the message about the waiting feast to others of their clan. Till the time only a skeleton remains, with some rotting body parts that no one, not even the vultures wish to partake of. Then it’s over. People talk sympathetically about the giant for a while, then it is forgotten, relegated to myths and memories.

I saw a giant die today.

It wasn’t a person. It was a name that many people would have heard of – ‘Borders’. They are, or rather were, 6one of the biggest names in the book selling business, at least in the english speaking part of the world.

And the way I discovered it was as much a shock as the news of them going away. Walking down Broadway in NY, from battery park upto Manhattan downtown, we spotted the familiar black and white sign of Borders from a distance. The pace of the kids quickened, fuelled by the possibility of laying their hands on some more of their favorite books. As we inched closer, it seemed strange that their was no activity around the huge doors. On reaching the front  doors, we were greeted by a dusty porch, peeled carpets and paint and huge signs proclaiming ‘Prime retail space for lease’. We, being tourists in NY with a million things to see and do, raised our eyebrows and carried on.

Later, after spending an afternoon at the iconic Central park, we headed into the Lincoln center. Everyone was cheered by another sight of the Borders sign. As we climbed the escalator and reached the first floor, I was shocked to see huge, ugly black and yellow signs – ‘Going out of business. Everything 20 – 40% off’.

image

To see these signs pasted all over the glass walls, which otherwise would be adorned with the posters of books, was like being hit by a heatwave, when you are expecting a gentle, soothing spring breeze. I looked at my wife,  we both stared back at each other puzzled. We gingerly stepped inside to witness signs of chaos. Books piled up in unruly stacks, hundreds of people jostling to get their hands on a bargain. Huge red signs proclaiming the death of a giant. Instead of the nice soothing piped music, the sound system was continually blaring announcements about warning people to not to sit on the ground and read, as it was a fire and safety hazard.

Where one would normally find friendly helpful staff who would go out of their way to suggest books and help you discover new books, there was no one in sight. Every info counter was a deserted mess with strewn papers, packaging and computer screens displaying a blank white screen or a message about no network available. Much like small ghost towns. With great difficulty I was able to track down a staff member to inquire about the whereabouts of a specific kids book. I was greeted by a steely eyed, grim faced girl, who pointed to a far corner and asked me to go search myself. The far corner, the erstwhile kids section was a deserted place. The bright and colourful covers of kids books seemed glaringly out of place among the carnage that surrounded them.

Catching another rare staff member later for her help in searching in the catalog, the explanation emerged. She explained that Borders was now owned by a liquidator. They had no access to the catalog and it was just a matter of time before all this would be gone. There was genuine remorse and tiredness in that face. Whether that feeling came from having repeated that answer to a hundred customers, pain of losing her job or a sense of loss due to passing away of a place where books were respected, I’ll never know. What was clear to see were the remains of the giant. It’s skeleton in the form of empty shelves, the discarded bits in the form of unwanted books, crushed mints and sweets packages near the checkout counter and bargain shoppers rummaging in the piles for a succulent morsel.

While this does reflect on me being not completely in touch with going-ons in the world, but I could sense a wormhole open up in the fabric of space-time. As we walked around the bookshop trying to look for books, I couldn’t help but wonder – Am I nothing more than a vulture, scavanging on juicy bits of a dying giant. Are the discounted books piling up in my basket, small bits of the giant. Did I at some point in time, inadvertentently play a part in it’s demise? Or the giant that I could see dying in front of me, was not Borders, but the printed book.  Will all physical bookshops soon meet the same fate, and did Borders fail to reinvent itself in a world of publishing and book retailing that is or has chaged radically?
Lots of questions, and very little answers. What’s even more ironic is that this piece is being typed on a tablet. One of the reasons for buying it was to being able to occasionally read magazines and books on it. So maybe that was my part in it’s downfall. But does  that mean that one should stop evolving and not foster progress and new approaches?

As one would expect, there are no right or wrong answers here. And an issue like these can be argued equally passionately both ways. All i know is that I watched a giant die, and it certainly wasn’t pretty.

Memories or a few dollars ?

So what would you rather have – Memories or a few dollars more ? … Here’s what i mean

Pick up a book to read. The touch of the book’s cover sends electrical impulses rushing through your nerves, which excites neurons in the brains and an image springs to your mind. A crisp day in October, you are standing in one of the most beautiful places on this earth. A quaint shop located at the edge of a mystical village, set on sun-kissed plateau high in the mountains, where time stands still. Houses are made of massive stone blocks and mortar, beautifully hand decorated with local motifs, carved wooden doors more than 300 yrs old. Streets are paved with cobblestones. To get to the next town, you either trek down a winding mountain path for 45 minutes or wait for a bus that runs every hour. Just round the corner is a cafe, you can smell a freshly baked chocolate cake – which on this cold day, will be heavenly with a frothy cappuccino while you excitedly leaf through your new book.

Or does the book conjures up memories of you sitting huddled in front of your GRS, late at night. Searching frantically through multiple websites or comparing prices from a hundred sellers on amazon, and then waiting for days or weeks for the book to arrive? Or worse … none at all.

I don’t know about you, i unabashedly prefer the first memory.

That was exactly what i experienced a couple of evenings back when i picked up a book for a bed time story for my son. The book in question is a simple but beautiful children’s book called ‘The Snowstorm’ by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet. Coincidently the book is set and was bought in the same village described above – Guarda, in the Engadine region of Switzerland, where the hero of the book, a boy called Ursli, supposedly lived.

'Snowstorm' by Selina Chönz & Alois Carigiet

So the original question again – the memories of having acquired an object or an experience in a special place  are exactly that – special. Rather than saving 7 dollars (or Swiss francs) by ordering this book over the internet. Then in a giant warehouse someone unceremoniously lumps the book into a cardboard packet, ticks a box on a checklist, pastes a barcode with your customer code printed across it and moves on to the next ‘special delivery’. Surely a cheaper way, but so much more dull. And saving 7 dollars, won’t exactly make you a millionaire, will it?

Just thinking of the fantastic time that we had over there, makes me want to go back there. Maybe we go back there in Spring. Till then, a taste of that beautiful place.

A typical house in Guarda, Engadine Switzerland. Behind it is the shop where the book was bought

local motifs painted on house, Guarda, Engadine Switzerland

local motifs painted on house

Guarda, in the distance set on the edge of a mountain

Many thanks to our wonderful swiss-greek couple friend who introduced our kids to the other Ursli book. If you have kids, buy this book for them. And while you are at it, encourage them to gather some experiences that they will remember for times to come.