I went to the neighbourhood Crossword book store the other day. I hadn’t visited it in a while and stepped in to have a look after I was done with the shop next to it. I usually limit myself to picking up three books from a store. This is done by first putting everything that seems attractive in the basket and then before checking out, pulling each book out to see if I really want it. Sometimes it works.
Anyway, the first book I bought at Crossword was Bhatkhande’s Contribution to Music (which I have somewhere in the house but bought just in case it cannot be found). The other two were: The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia’s Quest for Wealth and a book of interviews with A.R. Rahman called the Spirit of Music.
This seems like a good haul, but actually the store was barren. It was depleted on the non-fiction shelves and one could go through the entire range of history and biography in about 5 minutes of glancing. The shelves were so thinly packed that the books were front-facing rather than spine-facing.
I asked the cashier if the store was shutting down, and she was surprised and asked why I would say that.
Clearly, I was wrong in assuming it was in shutdown mode and now I was depressed. If this was to be regular service, then there would be little point in returning to the store.
A few months ago, I had the same sentiment after visiting the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata’s Park Street. The non-fiction shelves had about half the books they did usually.
Both these places sell lots of other stuff—toys, stationery and the like—and perhaps that is where the money is. It could be said that the bookshop is not really needed with online services like Flipkart around and really taking off.
I have a small problem with this. It has to do with something that I heard Lord Conrad Black say in one of the conferences that editors are subjected to by proprietors.
Lord Black was speaking on why newspapers were different from news websites. The difference lay in a physical act: The flipping of pages. You could discover something to delight you every so often. It was serendipity, according to Lord Black, that made the editing of newspapers special.
I had not thought of this before and agreed with him.
The shelves of a bookshop have a similar advantage over the online store. You browse. You remove a book with an interesting spine and you flip through it to see if it feels right. There is far more impulse purchasing at the shop than online, at least so far as books go.
To return to the Crossword experience, there seems to be a general deterioration in our bookshops. This is alarming because it always seemed that with such low penetration of the Internet, India would be safe from the crisis of bookshops in the West.
Landmark had opened a large store in Mumbai’s Phoenix Mills and then shut it down. The company’s website says this is for renovation and I hope this is true, but the fact is it has been shut for a few years now.
India’s most beautiful bookshop is Kitab Khana in Fort, Mumbai. It is also relatively new, only a couple of years or so old. It is a gorgeous, colonial structure with high ceilings and Corinthian columns.
Unfortunately, the collection isn’t good, and that is a shame.
Of the smaller shops, Premier in Bangalore and Lotus Book House in Mumbai are gone. Bangalore does have one excellent used bookshop called Blossom Book House, which unusually also buys books individually from customers and gives them a coupon against which they can pick up something new at the shop. When I offloaded some of mine after moving from Mumbai, I got a certificate worth over Rs.12,000 which I gave to those who were visiting and it was a good present.
My friend Usman Merchant has for some years run the small store at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai’s Juhu area. The shop, called Paperback, has a rack of used non-fiction books that usually has something of value and I have broken my three-book limit there more times than I can remember. Usman has just opened another store in Bangalore’s Rangashankara theatre and that is excellent news.
These days most of my books come from a used book service in Delhi called Prabhu Book. They service academics, and send out their lists every so often to a small group of people.
The other place is Amazon, but this is only for books I can find nowhere else. A friend from San Francisco, Shabi Farooq, who comes to Bangalore often, is kind enough to bring me whatever I have bought and had delivered to him.
Most of the books in my house have been bought from BahriSons in Delhi’s Khan Market, a place I have not visited for a few years now, and where I have an embarrassingly big credit limit.
I haven’t gone back there after an incident that can be seen as either funny or humiliating. The store’s manager, Mithilesh, was suggesting some books to me at random. I had my back to him and was going through the shelves, while he was calling out the names.
At one point he called out a couple of books by Mushirul Hasan. I was irritated that Mithilesh didn’t remember that he had just sold me all of Hasan’s works only a few weeks before. “Nothing by Mushirul Hasan,” I snapped and turned around…to face Mushirul Hasan. He wore a jacket and tie and a grim expression, looking directly at me.
I thought of what to say, but could only turn around and walk away. I wish I had visited the online store that day instead.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns