Once upon a time, when you looked for directions in the journey of life, it was often a bookshop that served as a landmark to find the path ahead. The lives of many people were altered just because they happened to discover a bookshop in the neighbourhood — the most dramatic transformation recorded in history being that of Ernest Hemingway, who was a faceless man until he found Shakespeare and Company in Paris.
If bookshops no longer serve as life-altering landmarks and are fast becoming memories, that’s because people hardly visit bookshops these days: why wade through the traffic and struggle to find parking and pay the price printed on the back cover when you can order the same books online at a hefty discount? The one that altered my life, ironically called Landmark, is also set to close down.
It was about three months ago that I first heard, from a reliable source, that the Landmark store in the basement of Apex Plaza in Nungambakkam — set up in 1987 and the oldest in the chain — was planning to shut down. I hadn’t shed a tear back then because there is a difference between planning to shut down and actually shutting down. I chose to believe that the plan would remain just that — a plan. But now that its closure appears imminent, memories come gushing.
When I moved from Delhi to Chennai in January 2001, I knew only two bookshops — The Bookshop, run by a man called Seetharam Naidu in Spencer Plaza; and the Landmark store at Apex Plaza. Since Spencer Plaza was right across the road from my office at the time, I would often visit Mr. Naidu’s cosy shop, mostly to spend time amid the books. But on salary day, I would invariably find myself at Landmark, which I believed was the best bookshop in the country at the time.
Later that year, Landmark opened another store in Spencer Plaza and that became like a second home. Yet, every time I wanted to rekindle my ambition to be a writer, I would visit the Landmark in Apex Plaza. There was something ‘writerly’ about the air in the basement, whereas the Landmark at Spencer Plaza looked more like a lifestyle shop. Each time I walked into the basement, greeted by soft music and a pleasant temperature maintained by the air-conditioners, I would feel assured.
Back then I needed reassurance. I had just started writing a ‘novel’, which opened with a scene in which the protagonist, a man called Shankar, wakes up in a flat he has rented for himself following a spat with his wife. Lying in bed, he ruminates over the circumstances that had led him to leave home.
Despite my efforts to proceed with the story, Shankar continued to remain in bed, brooding over a wifeless life. I would look for inspiration in Landmark to move on to the next scene: sometimes I would want to do it the Somerset Maugham way, sometimes the Hemingway way, and sometimes the Henry Miller way.
Eventually I did it my way and managed to write three chapters, and soon a rejection note arrived from the only publisher I had sent them to. I got even more determined to see my name on the spine of a book.
It was in this Landmark that on July 5, 2002 — I always sign my name and write the date of purchase on every book I buy — that my eyes fell on Cobra Road: Khyber to Cape Comorin. The book, an account of British journalist Trevor Fishlock’s travels through India during his stint as a foreign correspondent, had me in its grip throughout that night and when I woke up in the morning, I had been cured of my desire to be a novelist.
I began to read books about places and during the course of time, also in that Landmark, happened to meet famous people who have written about places: V.S. Naipaul in 2004 and Paul Theroux in 2008. In 2009, I saw my own book, about places, on the shelves of Landmark. A dream had come true, but I was too preoccupied with my next book to feel elated or important. Soon I stopped visiting Landmark, except on the rare occasion. When a book costing Rs. 600 could be ordered online for Rs. 450, why go to a bookshop?
With the closure of Landmark in Apex Plaza looking certain, I am not sure whether I should feel sad, or feel guilty for having contributed to the crime that is leading to its shutdown.