When William Rees-Mogg stepped down as editor of The Times in London, he told well-wishers that he was going to achieve one of his life’s ambitions: He was goingto become a bookseller.
Of course, The Times in that pre-Rupert Murdoch era was the voice of the British establishment and Rees-Mogg was a posh sort of fellow, so nobody imagined that he would be flogging airport best-sellers to passing salesmen. Instead, he announced that he would deal only in antiquarian books, an altogether more upmarket sort of calling.
I do not share Rees-Mogg’s enthusiasm for antiquarian books, but I have to say that I identify entirely with his bookselling ambitions. My best friend from school flirted with agriculture and industry before deciding to do something he really enjoyed: run a bookshop.
And long before his Fact and Fiction became a Delhi institution, I envied him his life. What could be better than to spend your time surrounded by books? To be able to read whatever you wanted? To go to book fairs to look for new books?
He tells me it’s not as much fun as I imagine, but I think he’s lying. Each time we’ve gone on holiday together, he has spent all his time in bookshops (including the antiquarian and second-hand versions) in such cities as Bangalore and Bangkok. And when he’s in a tolerant mood, he lets me sit at Fact and Fiction on Sundays and pretend to sell books. (I have to say that I cannot be as rude to the customers as he can.)
Sadly, the romance of the bookshop is dying. According to Chris Anderson’s best-seller, The Long Tail, bookshops—like most other retail ventures—operate on a 80-20 rule. That is to say that 80% of their revenues come from 20% of the inventory. This means that they use much of their expensive real-estate space to stock the top 50 best-sellers. Minority-interest books hardly get a look in because it costs too much to devote shelf space to them.
According to The Long Tail, the future of bookselling lies on the Internet. Amazon.com needs to pay no rent for expensive real estate and its inventory is—theoretically, at least—unlimited, because it can store millions of books in warehouses. Moreover, not only can it deliver the kind of minority-interest book that you won’t find at your local bookshop, it can also do so at half the cost because it doesn’t have to pay for the retail space or the shop assistants.
I suppose it makes sense. All of us complain about the high prices of books. And each of us finds it frustrating to be confronted with the same mass-market best-sellers at bookshop after bookshop, while we can never find the books we really want. So, yes, the logical thing to do is to go on the Internet and simply click on the most desirable books.
But to people of my generation at least, no computer screen will ever replace the sheer joy of spending hours in a bookshop. (Or in a record store—which, according to The Long Tail, is also in danger of extinction.) What the nerds, boffins, trend-spotters and Internet marketers do not get is this: The purchase transaction is only part of the whole bookshop experience. Browsing through the books, gazing lazily at the shelves, discovering new authors and flipping through the pages of unusual books is even more important than the actual act of buying new books. And I don’t see how the Internet can ever replicate that experience.
I grew up in bookshops. I have many happy memories of a childhood spent roaming the floors at London’s Foyle’s (“the world’s biggest bookshop”, it used to call itself), of lingering at the old Brentano’s in New York and of scouring the shelves at Strand Bookstall, the only bookshop in Mumbai worth going to for many decades.
Often, I became unreasonably attached to particular shops. In the 1970s, my favourite New York bookshop was Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue. Of course, the real estate space was too valuable for a mere bookshop to survive. So it is now the flagship branch of the Sephora perfume chain. Each time I walk past the gleaming Sephora these days, I spit angrily in its direction and curse its owners (the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey chain).
I feel the same way about Hatchard’s on London’s Piccadilly. It’s not, if truth be told, the world’s greatest bookshop. It’s owned by the same people as Waterstone’s, a more commercial chain that runs a multi-storey shop a few buildings away. But because Hatchard’s is one of London’s oldest bookshops, it contains a sense of history within its walls. Plus, it probably helps that I’ve been going there for 40 years. Nevertheless, each time I pass by the shop, I check to see if the forces of capitalism and mass marketing have transformed it into London’s latest Christian Dior boutique.
Sadly, with some honourable exceptions (Fact and Fiction, Strand Bookstall, Nalanda and a couple of places in the south), Indian bookshops have never quite made the grade. Partly, of course, it’s the real-estate factor. The margins on books are rarely high enough to compete with designer-wear shops or perfumeries. And partly, it is—and I say this with more sadness than anger—that Indians have never accorded books the respect that they deserve. It is shameful that in a country of our size, a book with a print run of 10,000 copies is considered a best-seller.
But perhaps that’s changing. Each time my car stops at a traffic light, there’s always a boy selling pirated copies of The Argumentative Indian or The Inheritance of Loss. I don’t condone piracy, but look at it this way: This is our own Long Tail. Our pirates and our urchins have reached the parts that our publishers and booksellers never quite managed to reach.