Those attending to the books section in chain bookstores look lost when you ask them for a particular book

When I came to Chennai in 2001, Spencer Plaza boasted of a bookshop which was called just that — The Bookshop. It was run by a chatty man called Seetharam Naidu, who wore his salt-and-pepper hair long and spoke impeccable English. As one stood browsing in the shop, an animated conversation between Mr. Naidu and a curious customer would often play in the background.

I never got to know him well enough to be ever engaged in a prolonged conversation; I was better off admiring him from a distance. He was clearly a man who was in the business not for the love of money, but for the love of books. However, the very next year, Landmark, which until then was located only in Nungambakkam, opened a large store in Spencer Plaza. Mr. Naidu had to shut down his shop soon after. (We are now friends on Facebook).

It was impossible not to be dazzled by the size of Landmark, and only natural for booklovers to guiltlessly migrate from the cosiness of Mr. Naidu’s shop to a store that stocked every possible genre under the sun — even erotica. If you did not want books, you could buy pens, music, movies, toys, lamps, perfumes, toaster, juicer, cot — name it and they had it. But it was primarily a bookshop that also sold other items.

Such chain bookstores, however, now seem headed for the fate of the pager. The pager, when it arrived, was the talk of the town. It was considered a miracle that someone on the move or not near a telephone could be reached. But even before you could lower your hand after raising a toast to the pager, the mobile phone was ringing in your pocket. What the mobile phone did to the pager, online vendors such as Flipkart are doing to chains like Landmark, whose identity now is that of a store that also sells books.

It all happened in the span of a decade. Today I find it quite heartbreaking to visit the Landmark stores: the number of shelves has considerably shrunk, so has the once-mindblowing range of titles. The staff behind perfume counters looks more cheerful than their counterparts attending to customers looking for books. Those attending to the books section look lost when you ask them for a particular book (unless the author in question happens to be Chetan Bhagat or Ashwin Sanghi), and they throw back a glance at you that seems to say: “Couldn’t you have sat home and ordered the book on Flipkart?”

I don’t blame them at all: they are all nice, well-meaning boys who just happened to join the trade in its fading days, when very few customers walk in to enquire about books. Most sensible people use the internet.

So is this the beginning of the end for bookshops? I am no expert to make sweeping predictions, but I am inclined to believe that chain bookstores operating out of malls will have no choice but to reinvent themselves as superstores that also sell books. They can no longer bank on the sale of books to maintain a plush store or pay for their space in a swanky mall.

But there is a bright side to the unfortunate trend. There are still many people who are not online 24/7, who love to buy books from a bookshop, who don’t know (or don’t want to know) that books can be read on a tablet, who love the atmosphere created by stacks of new books and want to spend time in a bookshop but without visiting a mall. All they need is the good old standalone bookstore, whose genial, knowledgeable owner personally attended to their needs and encouraged them to browse.

Such standalone stores are, in fact, making a comeback in Delhi and Mumbai. Delhi, in particular, is now dotted with such stores — they all have fancy names and boast of a clientele with impressive profiles. Come to think of it, the good, old bookshop is so much like the land phone.

The mobile phone may have destroyed the pager and the art of letter-writing, but it hasn’t been able to harm the land phone, which remains ensconced in its throne even in the era of iPhone 5.

Maybe Mr. Naidu should consider reopening The Bookshop in Spencer Plaza and have the proverbial last laugh. I would have made this suggestion personally to him, but he doesn’t seem to be very active on Facebook.

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