It was a simpler time. At least for a few old-fashioned readers like yours truly.
One of the joys of the weekly reading schedule meant darting across to the friendly neighbourhood lending library. In a mostly dusty, cauldron-like space, piles of books would be stacked, may we add, in random order, neither alphabetically nor genre-wise. Archie comics, Enid Blyton, Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, Target, Sci-Fun (both discontinued), the Asterix and Tintin series would vie for shelf space along side the “grown-up” books that ranged from Agatha Christie, Leon Uris and Robert Ludlum to James Hadley Chase, and the very sassy Mills & Boon.
As giggly pre-teens, one recalls snatching quick glimpses of some of these bold (in those times) book jackets too. Of course, these would pale in comparison to many covers of today’s mainstream publications. But we’ll save that debate for another day and time.
Back to our tribute to the humble library. In those pre-Internet days, the librarian, aided perhaps by an magical, unseen wand, was able to find that title out of nowhere, amid what one could best term as organised chaos. Soon, as wide-eyed readers like us would discover, this breed evolved into our weekly messiahs — who held the key to a make-believe, fantasy-driven world, filled with words, witty writers and wonderlands, from lands far and near.
With time, we also noticed the change that such libraries would undergo. From being havens for every kind of booklovers, these began to make space for added attractions, like greeting card counters, and gift galleries. A few other smart ones would install PCO/STD/ISD booths (whatever happened to those stamps from the 1980s and ‘90s?) to cash in on the telecom boom that had hit India by then.
Membership fees began to hit the roof, eating into one’s pocket money. New titles dried up and the older books held on precariously on fast-vanishing bookshelves as the age of the PC dawned. Libraries were selling off their spaces, for more lucrative options, and with it, an entire generation of genuine readers mourned the loss of this unique micro-community that helped bring books closer to us.
These days, spotting a lending library is as rare as finding a Russian cuisine restaurant in Mumbai; an endangered species, clearly. Which is why efforts by several city-based book-loving individuals and communities deserve accolades, for their derring-do and conviction to bring back a forgotten passion. Across tiny communities in swish neighbourhoods across the city and its suburbs, one hears of efforts being made, increasingly. Never mind the match-box-sized spaces or the limited funding and less-than-wide title list. It’s a start in the right direction, all right. Bookstores and libraries are integral to every community and cityscape, as much as restaurants and museums are. And we as a population must support it.
The great Walt Disney’s said it best, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”