Even on a busy Wednesday afternoon, the prime Basant Lok market in Vasant Vihar, with its glossy franchise stores and buildings, is not predisposed to huge crowds and congestion. And in one lucid moment, an inconspicuous bottle green door stands out like a beacon. You jostle through its narrow doorway, stepping over a customer or two who have made themselves comfortable on the floor. A bespectacled man of 60 peers over the counter just for a second before he is preoccupied again, his cool detachment a common knowledge among the regulars. The tiny space closes in on you with its ceiling-high shelves stacked with books categorised by subject — from graphic novels and Manga to books on philosophy, science and history. As if by design, there isn’t much space to walk around. “There is nothing accidental in this shop, especially the books,” says Ajitvikram Singh, the quiet owner of this 30-year-old establishment, the beloved Fact and Fiction Booksellers. Singh has announced that he will close his bookshop in a month’s time for reasons that hardly make for a classic whodunit for bookshops all over the world. We dig into the story behind the shop and the man who is running it:
How did the shop come about?
I started the shop in 1984 at the age of 29 after a brief stint in the agro-based industry. After my schooling from Mayo College, Ajmer and graduation in BSc (General) from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, I got into the family business. It didn’t take me much time to realise it wasn’t for me. At the same time, I had grown up with books —both my parents were voracious readers. My father read everything from pulp fiction to horror; he was my inspiration. My mother read Hindi literature, even the classics translated from English. I didn’t take any training in business, but the idea of a bookshop grew over the years only because of my love for books, more than the business.
You are known for your meticulous curation of books that lends the shop its distinct personality. How do you go about it?
Bookshops are all about the response. Of course, you give it your own twist, but you don’t stuff it with books only you like. My own process of selecting has changed with times — earlier, there was the joy of going through printed catalogues and hounding the publishers to procure the books. Now, I do it online. None of the books sits on the racks by accident. I chose each one of them. However, curation is a lost art. Since we live in the age of the here-and-now, people are impatient to wait around and even though online bookstores have a huge selection, the breadth is not there.
Was it a solitary journey?
I faced disillusionment when I realised that people were interested more in the business of the books than the books itself. So yes, for a long time, it was a solitary profession. The shop has stood despite the changing face of the neighbourhood, be it its commercial viability or the customer profile.
How long have you known about the inevitable?
We have been here despite the highs and lows of the market and the digital world, be it the mid- ’80s, when the market was made up of offices, or the e-book boom of the recent years. In fact, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the riots were going on, I was right here in my shop. The inevitable is a result of many factors. I can’t put my finger on just one. Curation is all about interaction and when that went away, so did the business. All the signs were already on the wall.