Ode to a Landmark

Earlier today, I discovered that my favorite bookstore, Landmark on Nungambakkam High Road, had recently closed its doors after nearly 27 years. The reason, apparently, was the store’s inability to keep up with competition from e-commerce and digital goods. As I am wont to do, my initial instinct was to evaluate the utilitarian impact of this event; before I get down to that though, I’d first like to pay tribute to my experiences at Landmark.

As a child, my experiences were strongly rooted to specific physical locations. Since I didn’t have the same degree of freedom of movement that I now do, I spent most of my time in a few familiar spaces which shaped my experiences. This list of spaces included home, school, a few select restaurants, favorite family holiday destinations and a bookstore called Landmark.

One of the highlights of each summer was the trip to Landmark. Once I’d made it past the shady dog that seemingly permanently resided on the first floor, down the basement staircase and past the entrance, I’d let my instincts take over. I’d race to the Enid Blyton section and search for the next selection in the Famous Five series. After reading a few pages, I’d switch to the comic book section at whim, and begin my hunt for promising Chacha Chaudhary books (avoiding those that had Raka on the cover ofcourse). Before long, I’d come to my senses; lingering by the comic books section was a waste of time since comic books were also available at the airport and the railway station. Moreover, in light of my planned budget of three books, they were a waste of resources since they took barely a couple of hours to read cover-to-cover. I needed books that would sustain me through the holidays. I’d come to my senses, drop the comics and wander through less familiar aisles in search of a new genre of book to indulge in. Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett! An entire book about tigers? 300 pages on such a specific topic? Little did I know that I’d go on to read a half a dozen Jim Corbett books, every single one of them about tigers.

Entrance to Landmark

Eventually, I’d find my way to the video games section and examine thoroughly the new EA Sports releases. Left handed batsmen! Realistic stadiums! No matter how elaborate the features though, I was never convinced. For that price, a few additional books seemed better value for money. Instead, I’d look in the bargain games section and pick out a lesser known game, which would later inevitably disappoint (Anil Kumble’s Googly Cricket comes to mind). Then would come the customary hunt for 49/- cassettes before I’d rush back to the books section to finalize my choices. I’d also rendezvous with my sister, who typically chose books slightly larger than mine. I’d marvel at her intelligence, until she’d hold up the checkout line trying to decide which chocolates to pick out (everyone knew that she’d buy three 5-stars and possibly one packet of Gems, plan to eat one a day, but eat all of them within 24 hours).

As the years went by, my interests would evolve. The full spectrum, including Agatha Cristie, Steven Gerrard biographies, Introduction to Ruby on Rails, Ruskin Bond, R.K. Narayanan, P.G. Wodehouse, Ramachandra Guha, Ayn Rand, Chetan Bhagat (don’t those two names look good side-by-side?) and more were covered. I’d also visit on my own more often and spend more time reading books in-store. But the joy of discovery and revelation in choice would remain.

And now the store is no more. No more wild evenings in Landmark. I should’ve seen this coming though. After all, I’ve turned into a Kindle wielding proponent of e-commerce. I’ve probably contributed to the store’s demise. My last few trips didn’t involve any purchases; I searched for books at the store, but chose to buy the book from the Kindle store instead. If book readers weren’t buying books, how could the store have sustained? It didn’t help that music CDs and movie DVDs, a sizeable portion of the store’s business, were fast becoming a relic of the past.

The Store in its Last Days

In the larger scheme of things, is the average book reader in my locale poorer for the demise of Landmark? As far as availability and selection is concerned, not really; Flipkart/Amazon provide consumers have a wider selection of books. The process of sampling books hasn’t suffered either; downloading a book sample onto my Kindle is wonderfully convenient. The serendipity of stumbling onto an interesting book may be a factor worth lamenting; most of our actions online tend to be intent driven so there’s lesser room for serendipity online, but new apps and web experiences are well on their way to fixing this. So is this just a matter of the old giving way to a better new?

I think the world has suffered a loss, not in terms of quantifiable benefits, but in terms of human experience. Will the kids of tomorrow be able to look fondly upon their cumulative reading experiences the way I’ve been doing? Can our Internet-centric experiences ever stimulate the same degree of emotion? Perhaps they can, but I am a tad skeptical for one reason. My Kindle experiences involve sight alone – my Landmark experiences involved sight, smell, touch, hearing and on occasion, taste. I hope the Landmarks of tomorrow find a way to replicate the full spectrum of human senses that the bookstores of yore did.

For now though, farewell Landmark, and thanks for the memories.