They're small, independent and often difficult to find. They can be messy and difficult to navigate, but there's always someone around to give you a helping hand. Some seek them out knowing exactly what they want, and others fumble through the narrow aisles, searching for something a little out of the ordinary. It's been a long struggle, but they have managed to survive, battling declining reading habits, corporate giants and online empires as they desperately resist the urge to fade into the annals of history. The future of specialty bookstores is unknown, but for now, it looks like they are here to stay

Giggles

Nalini Chettur

Resembling a closet wedged into the side of the Taj Connemara, crammed from floor to ceiling with thousands of titles from around the globe, this is a haven for serious literature enthusiasts. “I attract a very interesting clientele,” says owner Nalini Chettur. Chettur, a self-proclaimed “techno-idiot”, relies on overseas relatives for information on the latest literary trends, because much of the best overseas literature would otherwise never reach Indian shores. Chettur senses a decline in the quality of writing produced by today's younger authors, as she believes they are engineered to target specific prizes or bestseller lists; very few write for the sake of writing. But Chettur is still pleased to stock newer literature, speaking with wonder of the few authors who manage to deal with controversial topics — which might otherwise shock her middle-aged patrons — with a great deal of sensitivity.

While many of her customers have remained loyal, she's not sure if smaller sellers will survive past the next two years. Most of her clients are over 40, and she wonders how to attract a younger clientele, many of whom show no interest in heavy literature. She also acknowledges the threat posed by online competitors, and admits that the large discounts they offer are just too difficult for smaller booksellers to compete with.

Giggles' drawcard is its remarkable range of world literature, as well as bibliophile Chettur herself, who is more than willing to make recommendations or even just sit for a while, and talk about books. But be warned — if you're looking for something lighter, a self-help book, perhaps, or even a Chetan Bhagat, you won't find it here. As Chettur states: “This isn't a Harry Potter sort of bookshop.”

Giggles is located at No. 2, Taj Connemara, Binny Road.

Oasis

V.R. Prabalan

Though Oasis has a solid reputation among Chennai's activist crowd, a surprising number of Chennaites is still unaware of its existence. Owner V.R. Prabalan explains that the bookstore was founded to fill a void in the alternative literature market, as, even in the 1990s, there were “no good book shops in Chennai that catered to us”. Considering Tamil Nadu, after West Bengal and Kerala, is one of the best markets for activist literature, the shop serves as a meeting place for various activist groups, and is popular among individuals interested in exploring “social questions”.

The store was originally founded to accommodate the needs of NGOs, but most of Prabalan's business comes from environmentalists, social workers and a smattering of tourists interested in the city's counter-cultural scene. It is run single-handedly by Prabalan; his market is too “niche” and turnover too little to employ extra hands. Like Chettur's, a majority of his clients is also older. He laments the particularly “disheartening” trend that Chennai's young seem to be following — more interested in chasing the ‘American Dream' than in involving themselves in social action in India. He connects this to a declining interest in politics, which he believes has given way to a greater interest in dependable money-making careers. As for their interest in literature, he admits he does not know much about online book stores, and shrugs, saying “people say reading habits have come down”. He claims people sometimes walk into bookstores to browse and seek recommendations, and then make their purchases off online stores offering cheaper prices.

Oasis is located at No. 17/29, Kutchery Road, Mylapore. For details, call Phone: 044 2461-3445, before visiting the store. If possible, call before arriving.

Rare Books

S.A. Govindaraju

“For any topic you think of, I have a book,” exclaims S.A. Govindaraju, swivelling slightly to reach the bookshelf behind him, which stretches across nearly every inch of the four walls of his garage. Rare Books isn't quite a bookshop, but a personal collection, consisting of thousands of hefty, intricately-illustrated books with swiftly disintegrating spines, yellowed newspaper clippings and even colourful pages of Lux soap ads. Govindaraju pulls out a first edition Penguin paperback, and points out to the blue cover and numbered spine, then a 200-year-old print of Goethe's work, before opening a surprisingly-well-preserved edition of “The History of Railway Thieves”, tracing his finger along the photographs, expressing wonder at the depth of research contained within its pages.

Now 77, Govindaraju has been collecting “rare books”, or books that are “difficult to find”, for most of his adult life. A one-time Labour Relations consultant, he has frequented old paper shops and second-hand bookshops for decades, cultivating a passion for literature originally incited by his father, who used to gift him books to first “read, then preserve”.

Govindaraju attempts to essentially preserve what he can of a literary culture that's fast in decline. Like Chettur, he expresses disappointment in the quality of writing produced by younger artistes, stating that they simply borrow from other sources and piece together strange fragments of writing to produce an unoriginal whole. Few aspects of the modern literary scene are left unscathed by this overall trend, he feels. He compares book fairs in England and the U.S. — where independent book collectors are welcome to share their anthologies with the general public — to fairs here, which only permits registered book sellers to sell, limiting the availability of “rare” literature and readers' literary education.

Rare Books is located at No. 45/50, Second Main Road, Raja Annamalai Puram. For details, call Phone: 044 2493-6152 before visiting . If possible, call before arriving.

Old Law Books

K.S. Mukundan

“Don't compare the other books with law books,” says K.S. Mukundan. After decades of dealing in hard-to-find, speciality and out-of-print law books, Mukundan firmly believes the Internet is not a threat to his business. “One day, your Internet will go. What will you do then? You have to go back to the books,” he states. Mukundan has a point — funnily enough, a lot of reliable academic websites that cater to students and professionals rely on books for information. So really, the Internet is dependent on him for information. He provides a specialised service that few people in India simulate. In fact, he is called upon by various academics and advocates around the country for supplies. Academics are likely to be more discerning in the types of books they buy, seeking out particular editions, titles and authors that may be difficult to come by. Both his apartment and storage facility are crowded with bulky volumes of Indian criminal law, Australian constitutional law and international law, sought-after by international and domestic agencies alike. While legal professionals make up the base of Mukundan's clientele, there are also a few customers who contact Old Law Books out of a personal interest in the legal system. While reading habits might be otherwise in decline, it seems that books will always have a place in academics.

Old Law Books is located at No. 9 / 4, Arundale Street, Mylapore.

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MetroplusJune 28, 2012