When a bookstore is the best medicine

More lasting friendships are made in a bookshop than in a bar. For, all are equal in the presence of books

Published - April 22, 2018 12:58 am IST

Among my many ambitions as a boy growing up in Bangalore was one that persisted longer than most: to own a bookstore. My model may have been T.S. Shanbhag of Premier, once the city’s most welcoming and wildly stocked bookstore and meeting place for both young lovers and storied intellectuals, many of the former hoping to grow into the latter in time.

Judy Blume, the children’s writer who runs a bookstore in Florida regards it as ‘a fantasy’. It’s like a novel, she says, “You never know what’s going to happen the next day.”

When the novelist Ann Patchett opened her bookstore Parnassus in Nashville, she said, “People are coming all the way back around to the beginning of the [big-small bookstore] cycle and saying: I want the little store. I miss the little store.”

That was in 2011, the year that another independent little bookstore opened, this one in Koramangala, Bangalore. It had been Jayanti Venkat’s dream to become a professor of English literature. Instead, for nearly two decades she traversed the path from medical student to practising doctor to professor of medicine before deciding to invest in her first love, books. The result is Bookstop!, the city’s most charming and friendly bookstore, carrying on the Premier tradition in spirit if not volume.

It reflects the personality and taste of its creators, Jayanti and her husband, Venkat. The choice of books is literary and personal rather than popular and neutral. Jayanti is finally a literature professor of sorts, introducing books, recommending reading lists, keeping abreast of developments. Her somewhat unorthodox route to this started at St. John’s Medical College, and took her to Ohio, rural Kerala, Malaysia, and Mysore (where an earlier version of Bookstop! was established in 2007), before bringing her back to Bangalore.

Running a bookstore, like being a doctor, is not a job. It is a calling.

Every bookshop is a condensed version of the world, says the Spanish writer Jorge Carrion. Any bookshop is thus an expanded version of an individual’s world; those who own one have stories to tell that match some of the best in the books they sell.

Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller does this well. Despite his attempts at de-romanticising what he does (by painting a picture of himself as a grumpy old man), it is a delightful romp, complete with the story of how he once shot a Kindle and hung it on his wall like a trophy.

Independent bookshops in the age of large chain stores (many of them failing) and Amazon are doubly special. Not just for what they are, but for what they symbolise. Sheer guts, for one. Passion, for another. Even the casual browser at Bookstop! can sense this.

More lasting friendships are made in a bookshop than in a bar. For, all are equal in the presence of books. Also, as someone said, you can always find what you are looking for online. But it takes a bookstore to find what you were not looking for.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)

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