Monday, April 21, 2014
Down. And out.
There were about 50 people in the store. More than half of them were in their tweens or teens. Of the remaining, almost nine-tenths were in their mid thirties, or younger. From the conversations, it seemed that almost everyone had moved into Chennai sometime in the past five years or so. The layout was different, too. That half of the store where books used to be displayed - the 'original' Landmark - was off bounds. There were no books there, anymore. Those left over fitted into six display racks. The toys, VCDs and game cartridges filled up the rest of the space. And the shoppers were busy raiding. 50% off, and that's got the bargain hunters in.
The old timers were staying away. There was one other shopper who engaged the store manager in conversation. "I was here on the first day you opened, you know", he said. The manager nodded, with a semi-polite half-smile. Of course he wasn't there when it opened. That was a long time ago. The store manager must have been eligible for a half-ticket at Safire when Hemu Ramaiah set up this store. She made sure that once you get down the steps and past the door on the right, you could transport yourself to a different world - or worlds. It didn't feel like half-a-basement at all. One could sit there all day and browse - yes, browse. In the days before Netscape Navigator, Hemu's Landmark would take you all over the wide world.
Landmark was then a break from the past, but now, a throwback to another era. No bookstore before it tolerated anyone - school and college kids the least of all - flipping through their books. And here was the staff practically shoving a book into your hands and telling you to take your time reading it. It is difficult to believe that for 19 of the 26 years it has been around, the store has been competing against the Internet. The memories of those first seven years were strong enough for many to turn up again and again at the first Landmark store, now spread across the entire basement of Apex Plaza. Indra Nooyi, it is said, used to make it a point to spend a couple of hours here every time she visited Madras/Chennai. She was only one of the many non-residents - Madrasis or otherwise - for whom the Nungambakkam Landmark was the place to visit. And browse. And browse.
The first time I bought a set of greeting cards from Landmark, I did not realize that I was taking the first step to losing the bookstore of my college days. Greeting cards were followed by other stationery items. Then came CDs. Toys. Games. Suddenly, books seemed to be an "also there" item. And then the Tatas bought the chain, in 2005. India's best bookstore, born of passion, boosted by the quiz, sustained by the loyalty of its Madras customers (who spread the word about it to their friends in Pune, Bengaluru and other places) had now completely transformed into a 'business'. The staff didn't know their books. (Or even music, or toys, for that matter). But they still let
customers visitors browse through the books, and the Nungambakkam store was the best place to do that.
Now it is gone. When the bargain hunters have cleared it out ("50% off!!" "Everything must go!!!"), I shall also be gone. I did not intend to walk into the store yesterday, but I did. And I picked up a few books, at random. I only had a vague idea of what I was doing, because memories of 26 years obscured the actions of the day. My eyes were moist; I could not look at the girl at the billing counter, who asked me if I had a loyalty card. "I am turning it in today", I thought. I suddenly felt very old. Good bye, Landmark. You've taken my youth with you.