The Story of Our Borders Bookstore.
There was a time on our Island, not very long ago, when there were independently owned bookstores. But maybe thirteen years ago, the chain store Borders set up shop in the dead center of the Island. One by one the independents dropped off the map. It is pretty near impossible for an independently owned small store to compete with the mega-store and its deep discounts.
But our Borders was welcomed heartily and supported enthusiastically for so many reasons. Our Borders did not look or act like the corporate giant’s other stores. It had a distinctly local feel, and the local folk were loyal.
It provided the only place on the Island where you could get foreign and national newspapers. It promised a book order would be fulfilled in one week – or the book was yours for free. It was home to the only coffee shop on the Island. And this coffee shop in no way resembled corporate Starbucks. It served salads picked from organic gardens across the Island and desserts prepared in local kitchens. It was staffed by some of the most dedicated and delightful servers I’ve seen in any coffee shop. The chairs and tables were clustered close to one another, and on an Island with a population of 40,000 then, 65,000 now, it truly became what it claimed to be: the Island’s Gathering Spot. No conversation was private – all conversations were communal.
It was the place where you’d carry a birthday cake, call some friends, order some coffee, and celebrate. It was the place where young nursing students from the community college would cram together for exams – and someone else would step up to help. It was the place where you were most likely to find ‘Iokepa and me during our ten “house-less” years. Some called it our “office.” Many thought I worked there.
I knew every shelf in that place and almost every book. When a tourist made a request that confused a bookseller, I’d jump up and find the book. When friends gathered, we’d grab books from random shelves and discuss them, recommend them, and ultimately sell them.
You did not have to be either a book reader or a music aficionado to frequent our Borders Cafe. It remained the only place on the Island that collected socially, economically, politically, and ethnically disparate folks in a small congenial space.
It was the place you gravitated to when the heat was strong and the trade winds were not blowing for a cold drink and air conditioning; when the rains were chilling – for a warm chai or espresso. It was, inside and out (tables overlooking a magnificent green mountain), the place after a movie, a day at the beach, or a return flight from the U.S. It was the heart of community.
It was also the most profitable coffee shop in the entire Borders chain. The bookstore was beating itself in sales every single year.
And then, “Seven years ago it began to change,” said the efficient and genial general manager for every one of those years. This was a woman who remembered and acknowledged every customer’s name, health issues, and even vacation plans.
Corporate decreed: the newspapers from around the world were unprofitable. They were removed. Corporate decreed: you must stand in line again for a coffee refill – no longer trusted to fill your own. Corporate decreed: too many teenagers hung around the outdoor tables – remove the tables. Corporate decreed: local greens in the salad and fresh-made sandwiches were too expensive. Prepackaged, frozen foods were substituted. Corporate said: the comfortable reading chairs throughout the store encouraged readers, not buyers. The comfy chairs were removed. Special-order books now had to be paid for in advance, took three weeks to arrive, and too bad if it took longer.
Then: a few years ago corporate issued the coup de grace. The store would be enlarged and made to look exactly like every other Borders bookstore on the planet. The general manager’s objections were ignored.
During the year-long renovation, the store remained open – but there was no coffee shop. In that year the Borders habit was broken. When the store was unveiled one year later, it was huge, unfamiliar, and generic, with fewer books, more greeting cards, and many more useless gift items. There was a Starbucks next door to our Borders. Our Borders was no more.
The Island folks abandoned that made-to-formula store. The emptiness on most days and nights was eerie. The Starbucks tables and chairs were well-spaced; there was no longer a cross-fertilization of conversation or personal lives. Community had been successfully demolished.
It Is the Story of Hawai’i
It was ‘Iokepa, who – when we returned home a few weeks ago to present Grandmothers Whisper at our local bookstore, and I found myself pressing my nose against the empty window of what used to be our Borders (now corporately defunct) – made the comparison that is the title of this story.
Three thousand miles from any large land mass, the Hawaiian Islands were the most isolated archipelago on the planet. The Native Hawaiians’ connection to their Creator was direct and unimpeded. Their connection to every manifestation of their Creator’s creation was compassionate, respectful, and intimate. For more than 12,000 years they lived in a culture without judgment, without greed, without ownership. Land, ocean, and sky were gifts of the Creator; impossible to claim; they belonged to everyone and to no one. Yet everyone was responsible. The Native Hawaiians knew something about the threads that make up the tapestry that is community – and they honored it. They had no war.
Their matriarchal culture was illuminated within the word aloha. At the heart of aloha is the word ‘ohana. It meant: everything that you can see that you can wrap your heart around is your responsibility to take care of. It spoke of connections much larger than family.
But then a greedier, more aggressive people arrived, with colonial (corporate) aspirations (not unlike the chain store Borders), and imposed their foreign ideals and their greater-god, individuality. They brought hierarchy to these benign, egalitarian Islands – inflicted a nobility and a slave class. They brought to these powerful women and their respectful men, gender separation and racism, competition and fear. They brought war to a people who had refused violence in any form for more than 12,000 years.
The war they waged was against the soul of the native people. Then they re-wrote the Native Hawaiian story to suit their colonial appetites and to further their material ambitions – and they dared to call it “history.”
‘Iokepa says: “Borders came; they put everybody else out of business; they broke up the community – and then they went home. “The same thing happened to my Islands and to my people. They came. They changed our identity. They demolished community. They went home.”
The work of ‘Iokepa’s life (and his people’s) is to reclaim and restore their indigenous identity and their empowering community, as a much-needed instruction to the rest of our bitter and suffering planet. He asks only for awareness – and prayer.