I presided at the birth of Google
Okay, to be more accurate I was hanging out downstairs at the time.
The time was 1999, and the address was 165 University Avenue in Palo Alto, a small building located a few blocks away from where I lived on Webster Street. That prime piece of real estate is now known as the lucky office building in Silicon Valley. It’s where Google, PayPal, Logitech, and other tech titans got their start.
But those lucky businesses never stayed for very long. You could fit about 20 people comfortably in an upstairs office at that building, and when you grew much above that level you started looking for roomier quarters.
Back in the 1990s, we didn’t know this was the lucky building—it was simply the address of my friend Walter Martin’s store Chimera Books and Music, which took up the downstairs retail space at 165 University.
Chimera had long been a hangout for the literati and artsy residents of the neighborhood. It was my favorite bookstore in Silicon Valley, not very large but extremely choice in its selection of books and records—testimony to Walter’s discerning tastes. More than a few of his customers were Nobel laureates and famous scholars, and every detail of his store proclaimed it as a gathering place for connoisseurs of culture, not titans of tech. The office space for startups, in contrast, was upstairs, and out of sight.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
The grandest part of this literary shrine was hidden from view, and even I wasn’t allowed to see it. But my older brother Dana, who had known Walter for much longer, had gotten one glimpse. This inner sanctum was set up when Chimera was still at its previous location, a rambling Victorian house on Kipling, and continued its secret existence after the move to 165 University.
Dana still recalls the day Walter asked if he wanted to see the hidden room. “We walked to the back of the store where there was a door,” he relates. “I had assumed it was a locked closet.
“When Walter opened it, I discovered a medium-sized windowless room lined by about two thousand rare modern first-editions—none of them for sale. In the middle of the room was a single easy chair and a lamp. ‘This is my collection and my pension fund,’ he said as he began taking out early twentieth century books of legendary scarcity—by Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and Basil Bunting as well as more recent authors such as Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, and Philip Larkin. All of them were in pristine condition. Occasionally, he would quote the current price of a book, but he mostly just held some exquisite volume and described its pleasures. He also had a small fire-proof safe for the rarest items.
“‘I sometimes come in here, close the door, and read,’ he said. Then he escorted me out and locked the door. I only saw the room once. I talked to several other close customers. None of them knew the room existed.”
Google only had 6 employees when the company moved into 165 University Avenue in 1999—just upstairs from this literary retreat—but unlike the bibliophile treasures in Walter’s secret room, those folks didn’t stay out of sight for long. The nerds upstairs had a cheap plastic banner made with the Google name emblazoned on it—each letter in a different color and the whole thing in a cartoonish font— and hung it outside their upstairs window facing the back parking lot.
I don’t think I was even aware until that moment that there was office space above Walter’s bookstore. But this banner was an embarrassment and an eyesore. It looked like it had cost maybe ten dollars to make. And it called immediate attention to itself—not in a good way.
A few days later, I told Walter: “You’re out-of-date. Your store is filled with poetry and modernist fiction and jazz records. But you have no section for computer books or software guides. You have to get with the times, Walter.”
I had intended this as a joke.
I knew Walter had no intention of adapting to Silicon Valley. He wasn’t just a bookseller, he was a literati and sophisticate who would spend his spare time doing things like translating Baudelaire. His store was a celebration of literary icons, with entire shelves devoted to James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and other timeless authors whose works didn’t require updates and upgrades—there was no Joyce 3.0 or Woolf 4.1 and never would be. Putting tech books or textbooks of any kind alongside them on these hallowed shelves would have seemed a desecration, even to me as a customer. But Walter was in no joking mood. “Tell me about it,” he complained. “I’ve got a whole crew of those tech people upstairs.”
“Google, despite all its cash, is the ultimate repository of useless data. It actually needs worthless information—its search engine is far more valuable when people are drowning in a sea of half-baked facts and bogus numbers.”
By a curious coincidence, both Google and Walter’s bookstore moved out of the building on University Avenue around the same time—but for very different reasons. Google was growing so fast, it needed a larger space. Chimera bookstore, in contrast, was a victim to the rising rents in Palo Alto created by tech companies just like Google. After 30 years in Palo Alto, Walter left for a more affordable locale in nearby Redwood City. Before long, Chimera would close down its Silicon Valley storefront operations entirely.
But I can’t help comparing the two different approaches to knowledge that coexisted at 165 University Avenue for a short spell back in 1999. By any quantifiable measure, Google wins the comparisons. It now has 135,000 employees and a market capitalization of $2.5 trillion. The bookstore is just a memory. But not everything can be quantified in dollars and headcount. In fact, the most important things in life—love, friendship, trust, wisdom, beauty, integrity, to name a few—resist any reduction into a mere number.
If I can be blunt, the real lucky person at 165 University Avenue wasn’t any technocrat in an upstairs office, but Walter Martin who had created a unique environment with riches that can never get reduced to a Boolean search engine request. His friends and customers shared in that karma, even bringing a bit of it home in a brown paper bag after selecting from the curated offerings on display.
What choices do you make in your life? What choices do you want our leaders to make? Should they be aligned with Google’s plans for world domination, hatched upstairs at 165 University Avenue, or Walter Martin’s vision of the good life, pursued in the inner sanctum of his bookstore downstairs?
Let’s lay them out:
(1) The narrow path or the (information) superhighway: I often took my old books to Walter, hoping he would buy them to restock his shelves at Chimera. But he was very selective. Most books were of little interest to him. Let other retailers make money from supermarket novels, bestsellers with tawdry covers, books that self-proclaimed their suitability for “dummies” or “idiots,” the latest diet fad or self-help guide, or even college textbooks—an extraordinary omission for a bookseller operating in the shadows of Stanford University. Those kinds of books came and went, but the works he put on his shelves were of lasting value: you went there to learn about Faulkner, not FORTRAN, Shakespeare, not semiconductors. The Google philosophy, in contrast, was built on making no discriminations or exclusions—everything is included, no matter how banal or trivial or potentially harmful.
(2) Wisdom or Data: Human beings aren’t computers, and can only process a limited number of inputs. Walter understood this, and devoted his life to celebrating the kind of information that is genuinely transformative and enduring. The extraordinary advantage of this kind of learning is that it doesn’t go out-of-date. There’s no expiration date on The Tale of Genji, which is still broadening minds after a thousand years. Dante doesn’t need a brand extension or brand refresh via a sequel or spinoff. Data, in contrast, not only goes out-of-date, but most of it is worthless from the outset. Google, despite all its cash, is the ultimate repository of useless data. It actually needs worthless information—its search engine is far more valuable when people are drowning in a sea of half-baked facts and bogus numbers. Google is the life preserver that keeps you floating in that murky ocean.
But the biggest contrast between downstairs and upstairs at 165 University Avenue is the one I’ve saved for last.
(3) Profit-driven or values-driven: Walter clearly wasn’t a profit maximizer. He would have run that bookstore very differently if he were trying to please financial investors and venture capitalists. So long Virginia Woolf, hello Danielle Steele. In fact, he would never have opened a bookstore in the first place if money had been his primary motivator.
Google tried to take a principled stance too, at least at first, putting “Do No Evil” in their company code of conduct in 2000. In 2015, it was modified to “Do the Right Thing,” and then was eliminated entirely in 2018.
Why would a corporation feel reluctant to renounce evil?
Can’t that stay in the corporate mission statement, even if it just serves as window dressing? It certainly looks better than that ugly plastic window decoration they put outside their first office on University Avenue. But it should already be clear that the Google business model—built on incorporating everything in the entire world in its database—can’t afford discriminating between good and evil. The good is too small a part of the entire data set, while evil covers far too much territory. The proverb tells us that “the devil is in the details,” and Google’s job is to control every detail, no matter how small or disturbing.
So I couldn’t have predicted, back in 1999, that Google would engage in mass surveillance and operate as a trillion-dollar broker of its own users’ private and sensitive data. I couldn’t have guessed that the company would kneel down before totalitarian regimes in its constant search for bigger markets and more profits. I couldn’t have foreseen that pirates and crooks of all stripes would use Google as a tool in their own criminal enterprises. I never imagined that Google would deliberately fill up its own search results with advertisements and worthless links. But those shameful eventualities were all implicit in an enterprise that chased after financial returns above all other metrics. If that’s your goal, core principles and altruistic values come at too high of a price.
But not all of us have shareholders to please, or earnings-per-share targets to hit. Most of us actually have a choice to act like Walter Martin and his bookstore, and not like the technocrats upstairs. I’d like to think that that’s an easy choice to make.
UPDATE: My brother Dana sent me a recent photo of Walter Martin (below), who continues to sell a choice selection of books and recordings on a mail order basis. Dana adds, in a comment to this article, that Walter “is currently translating classical poems from the ‘Greek Anthology,’ I don't think he is doing it for the money.” The other protagonist in my article, Google (now trading publicly under the name ‘Alphabet’) is also flourishing, having generated $257.6 billion in revenues last year and currently ranking as the fourth largest business in the world (measured by market capitalization).