Word Counts Books

What is a ‘good bookstore’?

Last month, Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, announced the publication of her new book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, on how the struggle for liberation by colonial subjects affected Britain itself. But in her notice on Twitter, on June 25, that the book “should be in ‘all good bookstores’ today”, she added the request, “please try to patronise independent ones”.

Free of the corporate graphs

The case for independent bookstores has been made often enough — and in this age when the old bricks-and-mortar chains are shivering under Amazon’s dominance, the worry can extend to them too. But Gopal’s exhortation is such an admirable one, at a time when authors perceive themselves to be under pressure to publicise the sale of their books any which way, that it is a nudge to survey some of the ways in which independent bookstores nourish our reading and thinking lives.

A reminder came earlier this year when Lam Wing-kee highlighted Hong Kong’s draft, and for now shelved, legislation to allow extradition from the territory to mainland China for trial. He was one of the city’s booksellers who had disappeared in 2015, till it emerged he had been detained in China. With the possibility of the extradition law being passed this year, he sought refuge in Taiwan. His Causeway Bay Books was among the many bookstores in the city that sold books that had been banned in China.

As Lewis Buzbee recounted in his 2006 classic, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History, bookstores have always been key sites of resistance to censorship. Buzbee, a former bookseller himself, writes: “For most of its history, the bookstore has remained free of the constraints of government regulation. Writers and publishers have often suffered under explicit censorship, but the bookstore itself, in part because it appears to be a mere store rather than a powerful force in society, has been ignored. Anonymity has its rewards.” Plus: “Because the bookstore has also remained — again for the good part — a mom-and-pop, little- or no-profit institution, it’s also remained free of the corporate graphs and margins.” These two things have combined to make the bookstore “a stronghold of the rights of free expression”.

Buzbee writes about the role Sylvia Beach and her iconic bookshop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, played in the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even Ernest Hemingway was roped in to help get copies of book to the U.S. and get around the postal and customs curbs in that country, “and for twelve years Shakespeare and Co.’s was the only legitimate edition” of the novel. This has been recounted in greater detail in Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book.

Versions of the world

There is another role the bookstore plays, curating a choice for readers and browsers. In the introduction to his edited volume, Browse: The World in Bookshops, the critic Henry Hitchings writes that during his teens bookshops served as “places of furtive self-education” and that he likes the idea of the “bookshop as an informal library”. As someone who likes to be rereading a book simultaneously with so-far unread ones, I am sometimes indecisive about which old book to pick up. On a visit to a bookshop or a library, an old favourite is sure to suggest itself — it may even be a book I own, but it needs that discovery elsewhere to compel me to pick it up.

Bookshops, however, cannot replicate the role that libraries play in cataloguing, providing access, building communities. But it’s also interesting to see what bookshops may do in their own way that libraries cannot. In his majestic, around-the-world tour of bookselling establishments, Bookshops, the Spanish writer Jorge Carrión demarcates differences between a bookshop and a library. For one: “The history of bookshops is completely unlike the history of libraries. The former lack continuity and institutional support.”

Also, unlike the great libraries that keep acquiring without discarding, the bookshop caters to a permanent present, with each bookshop trying to forge a mix of what customers may come looking for specifically and what books may recommend themselves. No two independent booksellers could possibly come up with the same selection — and this is something that big chains, such as Waterstones in Britain, are now trying to emulate, to build collections locally so that each outlet distinguishes itself from the other. In Carrión’s more evocative phrasing: “Each bookshop is a condensed version of the world.”

Mini Kapoor is a Delhi-based journalist.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 10:18:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/what-is-a-good-bookstore/article28401271.ece

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