Save the Shop around the Corner

For some years now, Sundays are spent in my part of the world with books. The lazy afternoon sun offers itself up and by early afternoon the balcony is transformed into an odd mess of mattresses, cushions, books and music. The day is thus spent reading and carefully peeling and gulping down oranges.

I remember as a kid my favorite part of the week was when my parents would take me to the bookstore to pick out books. I grew up in some of the smallest towns of the country and consequently the book shops weren’t really the way they are now. Small and cramped, bookshops doubling up as stationary shops were where I got my regular doze of the classics, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton from.

Sundays still revolve around books. Apart from the exquisite winter afternoon sun, Delhi also offered the wonder of Daryaganj. The streets of Daryaganj get carpeted with thousands of books, mostly second hand, each Sunday morning. Walking through those narrow lanes, crowded with book lovers, picking through texts that often take your breath away- a rare ancient edition; or beautiful hand cut paper; a chance recommendation by a stranger; or even a wonderful inscription on the first page- the place is the very anti thesis of every other book experience the city has to offer.

The norm here is of course bookstore chains. Having navigated through the aisles of the many Oxfords, Landmarks, Crosswords in Delhi and Bombay I have come to seriously despise these spaces. A recent trip to one such store evoked a sense of such laziness and boredom that I found it impossible to pull books out of racks. 10 minutes and I was out.

An Oxford lover once, I do find it remarkable how one’s attitudes change so dramatically. For I no longer find it possible to enjoy these bookstores. Supremely organized, structured, texts placed alphabetically within racks leading up to the citadel of the cash counter, bookshops have been reduced to the single act of buying. Engage one of the employees in a conversation and you will be surprised at the impossibility of it. A ‘where can I find this book?’ inevitably leads one straight to the god almighty of modern civilization- the computer. That is perhaps an obvious necessity for a bookshop that stores everything that was ever published without a concern for or relationship with the text itself.

Despite the attempt to hegemonize book transactions-overpriced coffee and couches and stationary and the meaningless sales- there are a number of alternative spaces where buying books is actually fun. Janpath for example houses one of the most peculiar bookstores. New Book Land, an outlet of Midland, is a curious circular store that stands under a large peepal tree. Stacked up to the top with books, many of which lie outside one‘s field of view, it really is quite a mystery as to what one might find hidden away in some corner. One end of the shop has books stacked in racks, spilling out on to the pavement. The best part of the shop is its owner, who it seems has read everything that he has in his store, and always makes interesting observations about the books you pick out and suggests his own favorites too. One might have intended to simply kill time by looking over some books but a visit to his shop always ends in an empty wallet and a handful of books.

I don’t write this out of a sense of nostalgia. I think this aimless strolling in and out of big bookstores, reflects how sterile, commercial and almost industrial spaces alter our relationship with what and how we read. The joy of reading is in the act of reading itself. A parent or friend or a friendly book keeper’s abstract personal favorite would find its way into my hands and the beauty lay in discovering the moments where we both might have shared a laugh or shed a tear. This has now been replaced by blurbs that glorify and valorize using the heaviest adjectives, but its never possible to really figure out what might have been appreciated in the book. The focus seems to have shifted from ‘I’m reading’ to ‘I’m reading this’. A reading of one bestseller necessitates the reading of the next; simply by virtue of it being a bestseller and the praises showered on it by some of the best from the literary world.

I don’t think a bookshop is merely a space where people come together to buy and sell books (maybe it is in a purely materialistic and unromantic sense). To me it is a place where the most incredible dreams, ideas, stories and imaginations are stored. A bookshop should be a space where people share the experience of discovering and reading a book and not simply and primarily buying one.

Tanushree Bhasin

Winner – 26th July 2011 – The Viewspaper Express Yourself Week