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Elegy for a bookshop

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By Pradeep Sebastian

HOW long before the struggle between independent, local bookstores and national, chain bookstores — being played out in the U.S. — becomes a reality here too? Already I notice the small, cozy local bookstore I patronised in various cities have either shut down or in the process of shutting down. (To be fair to the large chain stores springing up all over the country — they have, among other things, given readers more browsing space.) However, what we'll miss with the passing of each of our favourite local bookstore is the sense of the personal. To walk in and be known, browse and converse at the same time — either with the owner or a fellow book lover — and to feel you are in a house of ideas. This has always been our most cherished notion of a bookstore: a literary atmosphere. However convenient the chain bookstore is, you are not reminded so much of ideas and literary beauty here as commerce.

A special shop

My favourite independent bookstore, "Lotus House Books" in Mumbai — which I believe was the best literary bookstore in the country — closed some six months ago. It is not clear why it did close down since it had a large patronage of book lovers; many of whom were serious readers, writers, intellectuals and even scriptwriters, directors and actors who bought their film books from here. If the store was what it was, it was because of its manager, Virat Chandok, who is the most impassioned and best-read book lover I know. The very first time I stepped into "Lotus" some seven years ago, I knew I had found my favourite Indian bookstore, the one I had been looking for all my reading life. I was in Mumbai on a book binge, doing the book-crawl the way some unmentionables pub-crawl. (Of course it is an entirely different matter that the book-crawl would usually end in a pub.) My friend and host, Rajib Sarkar (the editor of Gentleman then, and the only person I know who has mingled commerce, literary beauty and ideas in his life and work) told me the last bookshop on the crawl was special — a treat he had been saving for the last. Though I didn't tell him then, I was at once sceptical, since I had known disappointment again and again when other friends had introduced me to bookstores with the same promise. What they usually had in mind was some fancy looking bookstore, which, on closer inspection, would reveal had the same stock of books that every bookstore around the country carried. Only the décor would be different."Lotus" looked cozy and intimate, and had the reassuring air of a serious bookshop. Ten minutes of wide-eyed browsing told me the bookstore was unique, and after a good four hours spent in the store, I realised it was the first hardcore literary bookstore I had come across in my country-wide book-crawl. I simply had to know how the whole thing was put together, and I soon found myself in the company of its manager, Virat — who, it was clear, had first-hand knowledge of the books in the store. He knew literature, especially modern and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. What set "Lotus" apart, I figured out quickly, was that it did not solely depend — like most Indian bookstores do — on the same half a dozen book distributors operating in the country. Instead, they ordered their own titles, based in part on Virat's vast reading, and in part on international book reviews, book catalogues and a huge database. Virat and his other, passionate, poetry-loving, colleague, Dom, would actually ask publishers for advance galley proofs of books still forthcoming, take the trouble to read them and pre-order these titles. The bookstore also dealt intensively with special orders — if you didn't find a title in any other bookstore, they would procure it for you. The one foreboding aspect about "Lotus", which kept some away from the store, was that these books were expensive. Since these books were procured directly from foreign publishers and didn't come through the local distributor — who usually offers deep discounts — you had to pay the full list price. But this was the only way a niche bookshop could ensure it had a stock of quality titles not carried by most other bookstores. The bookstore's regular patrons who doted on the store and depended on Virat and Dom's recommendations, were in turn, known individually by the staff: what writers and genres they liked and didn't like. Well, "Lotus" is gone now. For a time it seemed like it would rise, Phoenix-like, from its ashes. It isn't enough if the staff are knowledgeable and passionate — what a bookstore needs is an owner who cares for books. I wonder if the owner of "Lotus" ever realised what an irreplaceable bookstore it was.

Alternative community

The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller is a lively history of bookselling by Betsy Burton, the owner of a very special Lotus-like hardcore literary bookstore in America. "The King's English Bookshop," E.L. Doctorow says, is "shelf for shelf the best bookstore I've been in." Burton writes of her battles with "Barnes and Noble" and "Borders" and how she and her devoted staff held out against the big chains. There's a chapter on "Book Sense", a community of independent booksellers who recommend their own books — Book Sense Picks — as an alternative to other bestseller lists such as The New York Times list, which, she informs us, is a list made up of books that chain stores and the dot.coms have decided must sell best. Shocking, isn't it? Book Sense Picks (www.booksense.com) on the other hand, are books that have been bought by readers from the myriad independent bookstores across the country, and books that the staff and owners of these stores have personally read and loved. Perhaps the staff and owners of the remaining independent bookstores in India should form some such community. It will not be long before our most beloved notion of what a bookshop is disappears entirely.pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com

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