Once upon a time,not so long ago,bookshops were usually intimate spaces that smelt of glue and printers ink. Shelves were stacked with literary classics,pulp fiction,coffee-table tomes and the occasional erotica. There was never much room and one had to squeeze through cramped passages to pass. Bookworms squatted on the few stools that lay scattered through the store. If you were a regular,the proprietor knew both your name and your literary preferences and would take great pains to recommend new arrivals or track down an obscure title.
I recall feeling strangely ambivalent when the first of the mighty chain bookshops opened in India. These spacious,sparkling megastores were undeniably well-stocked and afforded customers a different shopping experience with wide aisles,well-displayed titles and computerised cash counters. There was invariably an in-house cafe and the smell of fresh roasted java wafted through the store,making you feel as if you were at a Barnes and Noble in New York. These outlets stocked an array of merchandise and customers could purchase computer peripherals,music CDs and movie DVDs,in addition to books. The purists tut-tutted but the general populace was hooked and began hanging out at such chain stores,often en famille. These megastores had dedicated childrens sections,sometimes spread across an entire floor,so that kids could not only discover the joys of reading Noddy and Harry Potter,but also arm-twist their parents into buying them branded toys,computer games and fancy stationery.
There was a danger that these juggernauts would pulverise the smaller players. Economies of scale meant that the retail giants could sell books at a discount,much to the delight of customers who had hitherto paid full price at local bookshops. Quite a few bookstores in the metros were forced to down shutters,unable to withstand the fierce competition. Some proprietors,in a bid to survive,leased out their prime property to other commercial establishments and operated their book-selling business from the mezzanine or basement.
Then,we witnessed the Internet revolution and the advent of e-commerce. Now,one can browse and purchase books online and download them instantly on to a computer or Kindle. Those who prefer to read physical books have to wait a day or two at most to have them delivered at their door. Since overheads are comparatively low,these sites can offer whopping discounts,often up to 50 per cent. At such bargains,I imagine that even the most die-hard traditionalist will succumb to the lure of buying books online.
Having recently written a novel,I spent the last few weeks visiting bookshops across the country. I was delighted to observe that despite the competition,neigbourhood stores are filled with customers who continue to buy books the way their grandparents did. There can be no substitute for the personal attention shown by a proprietor who knows his customers as well as their reading tastes. The romance of the little corner bookshop lives on. And not just in the movies.