The enduring charm of independent bookstores
For many years now, I have spent much of my time, and most of my money, on books bought in stores owned by individuals rather than corporations. Within India, I had four favourite bookstores; Premier’s in Bangalore, Fact & Fiction in Delhi, Ram Advani in Lucknow, and Giggles in Chennai.
The store I knew best was Premier’s, run by TS Shanbhag off Church Street, in the heart of the city. Shanbhag was a book lover’s delight; he knew his customers and their tastes so well that one would be gently handed over a new book as soon as one entered. There was, however, no obligation to buy the book; no hard feelings if one browsed through it and then handed it back to the owner of the store.
Premier’s had its share of guide books and how-to-manuals. Yet its real strength lay in quality fiction, both in English and in translation; and in history and biography. It was also beautifully located, down the road from Koshy’s Parade Café, and within walking distance of the Chinnaswamy Stadium, two other Bangalore institutions that I regularly patronised.
Premier’s closed down in 2009, when its owner turned 70 and chose to go into a dignified retirement. Its closure left a large hole in my life. The hole it had previously made in my pocket remained, for I now spent the money elsewhere. A bookstore I knew and liked was Fact & Fiction, in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar; now, that Shanbhag had closed Premier’s, I visited Ajit Vikram Singh and his store more often. Every trip to Delhi ended with a look-in at Fact & Fiction, for it was located on the way to the airport.
Mr Vikram Singh was a reticent man, though he opened up in my presence, for we had been in college together, where I played cricket and he had been captain of the water polo team. We joked about how two jocks now made their living through books, something neither he, nor I, nor any of our college mates, could have anticipated. Among the attractions of his store was that it was decidedly and determinedly highbrow. He preferred Vikram Seth to Chetan Bhagat, Atul Gawande to Deepak Chopra, and so did most — dare I say all — his customers.
Now Fact & Fiction has gone the way of Premier’s. Increased rents, and the competition from Flipkart and Amazon, made Mr Vikram Singh’s business unviable. And it is a matter of years, if not months, before two other legendary bookstores become history. Ram Advani is now 95; although he still goes to his shop every day, his children do not live in Lucknow, and there is no one else to succeed him.
Ram Advani has more experience in the book trade than anyone alive in India — or perhaps anywhere else for that matter. He is a man of enormous civility and refinement, whose shop resonates, softly and sweetly, to the sounds of classical music playing in the background. Some time ago I met a lawyer from Lucknow in Delhi airport. I asked him whether he knew my favourite UP bookseller. “Of course,” he replied: “Ram Advani is as much of a Lucknow institution as the Great Imambara.” The Imambara will not go away, but Ram Advani and his store will one day quite soon live on only in the memories of his friends and customers (often the same thing).
I visit Lucknow once every four or five years. I go to Chennai more regularly; and no visit is complete without my calling on Nalini Chettoor at Giggles Bookstore. When I first bought books from her (20 and more years ago) her store covered two rooms in an annexe of the Connemara Hotel, in a city called Madras. The hotel is now the Taj Vivanta, the city is now Chennai, and Nalini and Giggles have to make do with one room instead of two. The selection remains rich and unpredictable, and the owner both personable and knowledgeable. But the intimations of mortality hang heavily. Old age or increasing rents will soon make Giggles too a part of history and folk memory.
This piece is sounding too much like an elegy, a homage, a requiem. So let me conclude by celebrating a bookstore that is very alive and promises to outlive this writer. This is Gulshan, sited on Residency Road in Srinagar. Visiting the store earlier this year, I was both charmed and impressed. It is spacious, and has a great deal of light. The books are tastefully arranged; in the shop-windows, on shelves, and on the floor in the middle of the store, around which one can walk while browsing.
I spent a fulfilling hour-and-a-half at Gulshan, following which I bought a new bag on the street outside, since the suitcase I had brought from Bangalore had no space left. The shop had many books on history, religion, and politics in Kashmir, these printed in English as well as Urdu. But it also had a decent selection of more general books. I bought some books on Kashmir, an autobiography of a Delhi publisher, a book on the prison days of the police officer-turned rebel Simranjit Singh Mann — all for myself, as well as a superb illustrated history of modern design (published by Flammarion) for my wife.
Old and favourite bookstores fade away or die. But new ones must arise to take their place. To prospective owners of independent bookstores, may I offer the Gulshan model; a representative selection of the best books on the city and state the store is located in, these printed in English and the vernacular, with this local patriotism complemented by books of quality on India and the world.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.