When was the last time you visited a bookshop? If not for buying a book at least for browsing through its shelves? Visiting a bookshop was always a treat for me. I simply love to wander along the aisles, staring at the books, touching them, feeling the paper texture, and holding them in my hands. I like the way a new book smells too.
I don’t know exactly when my love for books started. They were part and parcel of my life since childhood. Papa was a voracious reader and had a huge library at home ever since I can remember. There were at least two bookshelves each in the living room, the dining room, and Papa’s bedroom. Like vessels are common in the kitchen, books were common in every other room at home! His collection included books mainly in the Malayalam and English languages. Later he added Kannada books also.
I have visited many bookshops with Papa when I was a kid. But I was not a compulsive reader like him. At school, the medium of instruction was Malayalam, and I used to read only Malayalam books during my school days. I remember a magazine called The Soviet Union which had thick pages with brightly colored pictures in it. I used to love the smoothness of the super glossy paper!
Then my childhood friend, Geetha, introduced me to the local British Library. I became a member and a frequent visitor of this library starting from my pre-degree days and used to renew my membership meticulously each year. This continued even after my marriage and later my husband and two kids used to accompany me during my visits. My close acquaintance with the library ended in March 2008 when they closed it down “as part of a British Council strategy to reduce its physical presence in India”. All good things must come to an end, they say, but it was really an unhappy event in my life!
When we shifted from Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai, the first thing I did was to search for nearby bookshops and libraries. I have become a member of the British Library in Chennai too. But the peaceful ambiance of my favorite haunt in my hometown is missing here. Over there, there was pin-drop silence all the time!
I could also find a good bookshop near my home in Chennai. They have provided living-room-like seating arrangements in the shop and I find this homelike atmosphere very welcoming. Simply grabbing a book and sinking into a cozy sofa for a couple of hours is bliss! On select days, they host book releases too. We, the readers, can meet authors in person on such occasions. I think these days there are more writers than readers! 🙂
I started noticing a man in his eighties who was always there whenever I visited the bookshop. He would always be sitting on a sofa, reading, till closing time taking occasional sips of coffee from a handy flask that he carried. After a few weeks, we became friends. I learned that he is a retired bank official. He told me that he is a daily visitor and continuously reads there! I was thinking the shop people must be really nice to allow him that. Then I understood the reason for their tolerance: he always buys the book after finishing it!
BTW during the past 6 months, I haven’t been seeing him at the bookshop. Seeing my concern, my husband told me to ask the bookshop people. I didn’t want to do that as I was afraid to hear any ‘bad news’. I hoped and prayed that he was doing fine, and wished I had collected his contact number.
Even though the reading habit is thriving, I hear more and more bookshops are closing down. The contradiction is that litfests (literary festivals) are increasing! Recently I read that Mumbai’s iconic, 70-year-old bookshop Strand Book Stall has closed. It used to be the favorite haunt of eminent personalities like A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, Vikram Sarabhai and many more. Even Nehru shopped there once! Pune’s iconic bookstore, Popular Book House also ended its last chapter a few months back! Similarly 3 years ago, AA Husain & Co Hyderabad’s famous, 65-year-old bookshop closed. The famous painter M. F. Hussain was a frequent visitor there!
The reason behind all these closures is more or less the same. They can never effectively compete with online stores. Most people including me use bookshops to check out books and read the blurbs. Then we go home and order it online to get good discounts. Some of my friends buy only the Kindle edition! But I love paperback. I strongly believe in the quote by Stephen Fry, ‘Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators‘. There is no denying that online sellers have made buying books easy and affordable. Still, I prefer a bookshop! Of late, I ensure that I buy at least one book whenever I visit a bookshop.
The experience of walking into a tiny bookstore without any buying intentions, recognizing a few faces there, and at times ending up buying something totally unplanned are truly some of the memorable moments in my life. And the ultimate is when you find the lady in front of you in the checkout queue is also purchasing the same book, Bad Feminist, opening the way for a beautiful literary friendship! 🙂 I think a city without a bookshop is like a body without a soul!
I feel a way out for the problem of bookshops closing down could be having a fixed price law like in Europe. What are your thoughts on this? Which is the book you bought recently? Was it online or from a bookshop? Was it the Kindle version or paperback?
Happy empty nesting 🙂
There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books. ~ Irving Stone
P.S. When I visited the bookshop last week, I found my friend, the retired bank manager, there! I was so thrilled! He said he had had an eye operation which explained his absence! I have his contact number now. 🙂