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Want a book? Giggle!

Chennai's well-known bookworm, Nalini Chettur, who owns a small but comprehensive storehouse of books, Giggles, recently won the Best Bookseller Award.

"IT'S NICE, classy-looking cubby hole," is how a regular describes the store. At any given time there's just enough space to squeeze six people in — and all standing in a row with their elbows tucked in. But this little "book boutique", Giggles, is listed as one of the `must visit' bookshops in Lonely Planet's guide to Chennai. It's a place that's literally choc-a-bloc with all kinds of books. And as a sign in the window says `Books can furnish a room.'

The proprietor, Nalini Chettur is considered one of the most knowledgeable bookworms around but she says she started the store "for a giggle" and that's exactly why the store is called `Giggles.' Recently, the Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI) presented her an award for her service and knowledge about books. Excerpts from the interview...

Tell us about the award...

The Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India (BAPASI) gave me the Best Bookseller Award. I felt rather like the village idiot when I went up to receive it because the entire function was in Tamil and I don't know the language. I didn't even want to try a nandri because I would have looked rather silly. If I was an American it would have worked but being an Indian, and South Indian at that, and not knowing Tamil is something to be ashamed of.

You're considered one of the most knowledgeable people about books in the country...

It's a myth. In fact, the citation says `People plan their Chennai itinerary around Giggles.' That's such an exaggeration. I do read or at least skim through every book I stock. I don't have a computer, but I know every book that is available in the store. And if we don't have a particular book a customer asks for, I get it and post it to any part of the world. Some of the hotel guests do stay here because of Giggles but that's because our first consideration is service. It's a place where you can have a chat about the book, about books in general and then decide what you want.

But there's hardly any space to browse in your store. Isn't that a disadvantage?

Yes that is true, the number of books crammed in would probably intimidate some people. But the jam-packed appearance is not intentional, it just happened that way because of a lack of space.

Have there ever been any casualties because a person was a little too large for your store?

I have told many of my customers, especially the men, to stay in shape if they want to keep coming to Giggles. You can't wander around the shop if you're a little large.

Do you recommend or dissuade your customers from buying certain books?

I give my opinion only if someone asks me. Yes, I know the good books from the trash but if a customer wants a particular book, I have no right to tell him otherwise.

What kind of books do you specialise in?

I focus on books on India because this country has so much in terms of culture, language, art, geography — the variety is endless — but people are so unaware of it. I had a Westernised education and cannot read or write any Indian language. So focussing on India is a way to learn more about my own country. We also have international fiction, Indian authors, philosophy — a little bit of everything, but a minimum of management and self-help books because I think there is enough shops out there selling that.

Did you always want to own a bookstore?

I really don't know. I was born in Madurai and my grandfather was a leading lawyer. He had a huge library and I would sneak in and spend time among the books. One day, I was sitting on his lap and he said in Malayalam, "One day all these books will be yours." It was prophetic. Not literally, because my grandmother donated them to the law library but in another sense his words have come true. I was working as a sales promotion officer for a few months with Higginbothams and some of my friends suggested that I start my own bookstore. My father was completely against it because I knew about books but nothing about business. I started with Rs.1000 and I've never taken loans. It's been 30 years now and I've learnt more from the bookshop than from going to school or college. It's been such fun — a giggle all the way.

When did you start reading?

My father used to bring a book home everyday from the time I was four. In a way I think that's how the interest for reading sparks. A lot of parents today send their kids to buy comics because they're cheaper. Books are expensive, but the benefit the child receives is far greater.

Who are your favourite authors?

Very difficult to answer that. I really love R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. I read a lot of the Latin American authors. I like reading Ramachandra Guha, Vikram Seth, Sunil Khilnani — many of the Indian authors in English are very creative and talented.

Do you think Chennai is a book-friendly city?

People in Chennai really love books; they want to read. But books are so expensive these days and most people don't have the space to store books. So I sincerely believe that Chennai should have more libraries. At least one really good library that is both affordable and has a good collection. Libraries will cultivate the reading habit among people. Reading is such a joy, children should read books because it's a habit that stays with you and gives you so much.


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