Small, individually owned bookshops are like village bakeries. They exude an aroma. There is warmth , there is bonhomie. Even if you are going in there for the first time, you take a deep breath to inhale that special mix of fresh ink, paper, gum, even leather, and recognize with a happy sigh of contentment that you are among friends.
The best of them allow you to nibble and chew at their wares, under the tolerant eye of the owner, who knows just when to offer a soft jam doughnut to one customer, a crumbling bit of salt biscuit to another or a hard slice of black pumpernickel bread to a third.
“I think it is a form of seduction,” confesses Nalini Chettur, who owns Giggles, often described as the “the biggest little bookshop” in the country. Its 110sq. ft is crammed with books from floor to ceiling. Chettur does not sell books as much as entice her customers with an ease born of years of shrewd judgement.
Giggles is something of a legend in Chennai, tucked away as it is, within the labyrinth of the Taj Connemara hotel, itself a heritage property. As with the other individually run, small bookshops—the Strand in Mumbai, Premier in Bangalore or Advani’s in Lucknow—Giggles owes its flavour to the feisty character of its redoubtable owner.
Chettur has a sharp eye, and can spot a famous author as he or she comes through the door. Her recollections of Nobel Prize winners V.S. Naipaul or Wole Soyinka are vintage performances. But it’s when she describes her first meeting with Jan Morris, the travel writer who at the time was equally famous for having written Conundrum, the book in which she describes how she went from being James Morris to Jan Morris, that Chettur really gets into her stride.
You almost see Morris as she steps into the shop, knocking off a few books from the shelves and hear her manly growl, apologizing for the mishap.
“I looked up and I could see that a woman had entered, but what I heard was a hoarse man’s voice so, before I could think of anything, Jan looked up, caught sight of her books on the top shelf and exclaimed, ‘What a wonderful collection of books you have!’ in that same gruff voice. I knew at once who she was, but you know, even though she came back often, I never once could ask her about Conundrum, what it really means to be a woman in a man’s body. It often happens. Authors come into Giggles and some of them are quite shy, but the moment they look around and ask for a particular book, I know who the person is. Authors are really interested only in their own books.”
“I love eccentric people,” she says “Many of my early customers were from New York, so one of my dreams when I started Giggles was to go to New York and open a bookshop there. What happened, instead, was that they came here and I kept giving them books on India, they had such a deep interest in them and that’s how I slowly developed my own expertise on the subject.”
What makes her a connoisseur of the written word is her intense love for and involvement with books. She not only reads reviews of the latest books and forms her own opinion about them; she knows exactly what her customers might like.
As some of them say, her memory is phenomenal—she not only remembers where each and every one of the books is tucked away in the lair, she takes just an instant to connect a particular reader with a genre and then, with almost uncanny flair, tempt him or her with something a little different.
Her own love for reading developed when she was studying in Bangalore. Later on, when her father was transferred to Mumbai, Chettur discovered the famous Strand bookshop there and its astute owner T.N. Shanbhag.
Not only were his books affordable, he knew just how to win a prospective customer’s heart. She remembered both techniques when she started her own venture. People like to be given books. They also love a discount. Many small bookshops thrive on the remaindered book trade.
It was almost by accident that Chettur joined the august bookshop called Higginbothams on Chennai’s Mount Road or Anna Salai, as it is now known.
She was the first woman to join the male-dominated establishment known as Amalgamations, that had bought the shop way back in 1945.
As a sales promotion manager, she tried to persuade the staid and reticent staff to ask their customers about their hobbies. Chettur also tried to introduce stationery items and greeting cards. She feels that she was successful, even going to the tea planters’ annual gathering in Ooty to set up a bookstall that proved to be a great hit.
Almost for a lark, she set out to create her own niche. “I started with an initial investment of just Rs1,000 and decided to name it Giggles. My father was shocked, but there was no looking back, and in all these 34 years, I have never taken a loan from a bank and have a reputation among publishers of being very prompt in paying up at once.” she says.
The Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India gave her an award in 2003 for her “service and knowledge about books.” The other recipient that year for his contribution as a writer was Ramachandra Guha, who is a devoted customer of Giggles when he visits Chennai.
Like the village bakery, or the neighbourhood one, the small bookshops are on their way out. They have been replaced by the mega bookshops that offer much more by way of entertainment, music, DVDs, electronic toys and merchandising for the home, office and hobbies than the small bookshop owner could ever provide. In some cases, former pavement bookstalls have themselves become mega bookshops, such as Blossoms in Bangalore, or the one started by a popular roadside magazine shop that has expanded into a huge store named (what else?) Magazines.
Church Street in Bangalore is now the centre of the book district, where the techies and geeks stroll with their families browsing through the glossy manuals of their trade.
There’s loud music, lights, stickers and pennants dangling from the ceiling. There’s excitement. There’s food, generally as shiny and glossy as the magazines slipped into their sealed covers.
There’s the continual beep of the cash registers ringing in the money, but rarely do you see a customer picking up a book and closing his eyes in ecstasy, just waiting to inhale. The scent of literature is no longer on sale.
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