The cities I have lived in always had more liquor shops than bookstores. This meant that the people in these cities drank more whiskey than they read books, finished more beer cans and wine bottles in a month than novels – and frequented bars on weekends much more than they went to book-cafes.
It was strange because it told me a lot about the culture of a generation. The denim brands at the shopping malls grew in number – inventing slim-fits, mid-rise and ripped jeans and flare jeans – and wooing people by bringing back the same old fashion every five years. In retrospect, I think that they attracted them anyway since that is what the famous actresses were wearing. Outside the hookah bar, there were queues of people who wanted to be accommodated. Tremors shook the dance-floors of pubs on Saturdays. Theatres ran the same clichéd love stories packed with misogynistic songs and gender stereotypes – but the shows were always houseful.
Only the bookstores remained empty. Shelves stacked with books by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin stared into the oblivion, slowly acknowledging that Russian writers are destined to live lonely lives after all. Kafka was disheartened, Hemingway grunted in anger, Plath returned to her bell jar and Shakespeare could not decide whether to be or not to be. The tables had chess games which were never won or lost, cups meant for coffee which was never made, walls with framed book covers that no one looked at with coveting eyes. Maybe, nerds these days did not go out for dates at all. Maybe it was just Amazon, e-books or their hectic work lives. Whatever the reason was, it was apparent that bookstores did not get the attention they deserved.
Despite the convenience offered by e-commerce sites, the effort that goes into visiting a bookshop to buy a book is worth it – and for important reasons. Discovering a book is often difficult online – since at this stage, an algorithm often ends up suggesting you books which are ‘popular’ as opposed to ‘good’. My experience of online purchases has been limited to Pullitzer and Booker-winning books, or those by Rowling and Murakami. However, in bookstores, I found the rare gems – “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk, Mohsin Ahmed’s “Exit West”, Murugan’s “One Part Woman” or anything by Aubrey Menen, books on Adivasis, Africans and Native Americans with which the general masses might not connect to and hence never ‘popularise’.
On the internet, the closest you can get to Charles Bukowski’s works is “Post Office” or “Women” – but at independent bookstores, you will not be able to ignore “South of No North” placed just below these. Academic reads like Chomsky’s “On Language” or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” or a random read on Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif might not necessarily be to our taste – but in bookshops, there is a chance of love at first sight.
The mere system of arranging books according to genre (in bookstores) can work much better than the recommendations you find on Goodreads. Such sites often rank books on lists according to ‘ratings’ – but on the assumption that all these books are read equally, which is far from the truth. So, “The Life of an Amorous Woman” by Ihara Saikaku will not convince you with the stars it has been rated with, as much as a book by Dan Brown or Tolkien. On the other hand, in a bookshop, the exploration is completely your own – free from the bias and tyranny of majority views. This lets you pick books which you wouldn’t, otherwise.
For broke bibliophiles, independent bookstores offer a very good price. Though it is unanimously believed that books are cheaper online, a little more patience and research may help you understand that discounts are often offered mostly on best-selling books. A book which is slightly less popular, almost never has a price-cut online – and if there is one, it might vary from 5% to 20% – while discounts at most of the bookstores would begin at the 20% or 30% mark.
The variety of second-hand books is also larger in a brick-and-mortar store. And with this comes the little notes written on the margins by previous owners, reminding you how stories are universal legacies to be passed on to minds that haven’t read them. I wish e-books would make us feel something similar.
Only last month, I discovered a book-cafe on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. They went by the name “Walking BookFairs” – because previously they had a book-van with which they used to travel across the country to libraries and villages donating story books to little children.
If one thinks about it rationally, reading was often a luxury only the privileged could afford – since a hungry farmer or wage-labourer never had the time, peace of mind or ability to read and interpret a book. But the owners of this bookstore believed that knowledge is for everyone – irrespective of their position in society. They carried this vision forward and even started a movement – publishing poetry books written by common men, organising library events in which you could ‘borrow’ a person and ‘read their lives’ through conversations.
Finally, they built the book-cafe with handpicked books – from Faulkner to Chinua Achebe, and from Atwood to Ishiguro. In my opinion, this is what makes independent bookstores different from Oxford/Crossword chains or websites – the motive behind them, a vision for which they relentlessly struggle, making books more affordable and available to a larger number of people.
Ray Bradbury once warned us, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Culture is the essence of human existence – and books are its very embodiment, where our history, politics, mythology and scientific advancements are preserved and remembered. They deserve to be kept alive – in libraries, bookshops and the bookshelves of little children who should not grow up with a closed mind.
Featured image for representative purposes only.