The reader wants more

Updated on Feb 26, 2011 02:04 AM IST

No single place is witness to as much history as a small bookstore, specially one that stands the test of time, ending up only but a little withered.

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HT Image
Hindustan Times | ByIsha Manchanda

No single place is witness to as much history as a small bookstore, specially one that stands the test of time, ending up only but a little withered. When Bookworm, a landmark bookstore in Delhi, shut its doors in 2008, readers wrote heartfelt obituaries, prophesying the doom of independent bookstores. History was suddenly seeming wrathful to its most faithful chronicler, books.

The death of the indie store had seemed inevitable since the advent of the chain bookstores towards the end of the 1990s and post 2000. Post-globalisation, books had been added to the ever increasing consumption-fetish driven market of easy possession and disposition. “Chain bookstores, like Crossword and Landmark, opened new readers to books, perhaps, but limited their choices to bestsellers,” says Priyanka Malhotra of Full Circle bookstores. “They made the experience of buying books sanitised in a way. Why would you travel across the city to a small bookstore when there was a big one in the neighbourhood mall?” she adds. It was convenience over culture.

Then came the online revolution, taking convenience to another level. Online bookstores and lending libraries started popping up to cater to those who don’t find the time, or the inclination, to visit a bookstore. Websites like Flipkart and FriendsOfBooks have something for everyone, from bestsellers to indies to the imported and the banned.

Between the chain stores and the websites, one would never need to visit a small store again. Gadgets like Kindle and other such readers are posed as threats to the publishing industry. They say paper will go out of fashion and books will never be read the same way again.

With bookstores like Yodakin and CMYK (Roli’s art and design bookstore behind India Habitat Centre), Delhi has seen the culture of indie bookstores rising out of the ashes. The mall rats are moving to narrower streets for an experience of culture, and not just a quickie purchase on the Net. And it’s not just the books that are drawing them out, it is the promise of an experience.

Products by design collectives as seen at CMYK, or difficult-to-find documentaries and indie music CDs found at Yodakin, a wide collection of bhasha literature from 10 Indian languages at Pahar Ganj’s Jackson bookstore or maybe just a peaceful cup of coffee at Full Circle and Cafe Turtle in Khan Market or a book-reading or film-screening at any of the above.

Yodakin’s Arpita Das doesn’t believe the naysayers. Running a small bookstore, hidden in the maze-like streets of Hauz Khas Village, recently featured in The New York Times, Das believes that small bookstores are marking a glorious return in the midst of mall-friendly corporate retailers. "The digital wave in publishing has only helped the cause of the indie bookstores by returning to fore the idea of a book as a cultural artifact," says Das. Aeons ago, when the publishing industry was still in its infancy, a book was a rare and proud thing to own — it wasn’t a mass-produced commodity, it was niche and extraordinary. "We are now returning to that to some degree," adds Das. Separating the wheat from the chaff, as some might call it.

Unlike what corporate retailers would have us believe, the charm of a bookstore doesn’t lie in cosmetically stacked rows of an indiscriminate collection of books, separated by genres looking lost in a synthetic neatness. It doesn’t lie in the convenience of a click online and doorstep delivery. It lies in the support staff’s knowledge of the exact shelf in the exact corner of the store on which lies the one book you are looking for, as experienced time and again at a store like Bahrisons in Khan Market. It lies in the eccentric collection of literary masters and animated conversations — being occasionally told off about one’s ignorance, as well — that last hours with the owner at a place like Fact & Fiction in Vasant Vihar. It lies in the experience of growing old looking at the faces of store managers, learning as much about blues as about books, in places like The Bookworm. It lies in history as much as it lies in culture, and it is intangible.

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