For decades now, K.D. Singh, who died on Wednesday, ran one of the finest bookstores, aptly called The Bookshop, to be found anywhere — for some years, more than one, till spiralling rentals, and not falling book sales, forced him back to home base, Delhi’s Jor Bagh market. You could go far and wide, binge at the big chains and much celebrated independent bookstores elsewhere, and return to a recce of this city’s scattered but still robust shops to realise yet again that some books will only be discovered on their shelves or from their owners/ managers. KD was one, prominently so, among many in this city who labour to maintain genuinely book-driven shops, doing it so well that a conscious effort is needed to work out the crucial place of a bookshop in the creative life of readers and writers, especially at a time when they brace themselves for the full consequences of the migration of book retail to the internet and the popularity of ebooks.
In a slim, charming memoir, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee, a San Francisco-based former bookseller and publisher’s sales rep, tried to work out what it is about bookshops that sets them apart. Start, he suggested, by acknowledging that “the unspoken rules we’ve developed for the bookstore are quite different from the rules that govern other sales enterprises”, the unique “public claim on its time and space”, and the incomparably “allowable leisure” it affords to those who browse, linger, pass time.
Buzbee invokes Elias Canetti’s description of cafés as places where we can be “alone among others” to nail the essential (but difficult-to-articulate) appeal of a bookstore. There is a hush in a bookstore, akin to that in a library, but there is also chatter, an exchange of views and recommendations — and it is the bookseller’s unique skill to create a space that invites that perfect balance of hush and chatter.
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The bookstore is also, he notes, testimony to the “fundamental democracy in the mass-produced book”, with all its benefits and drawbacks. A paradigm-changing book will trade at the same price as a “tawdry celebrity biography”; the same book can be found at any number of locations, at an airport bookshop, pharmacy, online, or in a book-driven enterprise (besides the brick-and-mortar shops, do recall the now disappearing pavement sellers who’d guide us to books we didn’t even know we were looking for). And its contents will read the same, as hardback, collector’s edition, paperback, ebook.
In a related way, those who get the book to readers, the last link in the publishing chain, sellers are upholders of the “right to free expression”. Bookshops collectively thrive on their evolution and the legend of predecessors, and Buzbee recalls the role played by the original Shakespeare and Company in Paris in fighting censorship, particularly getting James Joyce’s Ulysses to readers before the big publishers got the legal sanction to do so.
But perhaps the most vital role played by a bookshop is to allow, foster, nurture, enable the discovery of books. KD was known for glancing up at the glass ceiling to find out which shelf a regular was at and calling her attention to the newly stocked books she’d particularly like. He’d even, on occasion, insist that she pick up the book, given her taste, she had to like it. If a book was not to be found on his shop’s shelves, why, you were welcome to borrow a copy from his personal collection. And rather uniquely among his tribe, he’d take a bought book back on the buyer’s plea that it did not give her a good feeling.
A bookseller stamps her personality on the books on display, on the recommendations she makes to the reader, on the inventory she maintains. No two bookshops can be the same. But as a collective, the bookshop is where books are discovered, sampled, appraised. The huge online retailers have played a healthy role in growing the market with discounts and providing a choice a seller limited by shelf space cannot. But you need just look at the controversy over Amazon discouraging buyers from Hachette publications to understand the need for a crowded, unaffiliated marketplace for books. The New York Times reported that after failing to get the deal it desired from the publisher, Amazon was discouraging buyers from its books, and when orders were placed, the usual discounts were absent and delivery time was extended.
The smart reader would find the book of choice elsewhere. But the episode highlights the larger crisis in discovering books. I have found any number of useful suggestions on online bookstores based on my purchases, I am liberated by the instant download of ebooks, but such targeted recommendations preclude the serendipitous discovery of books — books dissimilar to anything I may have read so far, books I may not have thought I was seeking. Libraries enable that, but the role of bookshops in this is central. And irreplaceable.
The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’