Lindsay Pereira: The loneliness of the bookseller
Offline bookstores ought to lie at the heart of our communities. Instead, they continue to be pushed to the peripheries
The death of a bookstore is also death of a host of possibilities, because of the role they once played in our communities. File pic
I first ran into TN Shanbhag while studying towards a Bachelor's degree in literature, a quarter of a century ago. I had no idea who he was, except that he slashed the price of a book of poems by Arun Kolatkar when I expressed some interest in purchasing it. I wouldn't have been able to afford it without that discount, and thanked him for it. The Strand Book Stall was, at the time, the only place that stocked Kolatkar's Jejuri, and I still don't know of other stores selling copies for anyone interested in the late poet's powerful voice of reason.
If you don't know Shanbhag's story, I have no intention of repeating it here, because those who ought to know it, do so already. If you don't know that the store he founded over seven decades ago will have closed forever by the time this column goes to print, the loss is yours alone. I'm told six Strand stores shut down over the past five years, in Pune, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune, making the demise of the original store inevitable in the aftermath of our collective e-commerce revolution. It isn't just the shutting down of an iconic store - and an integral part of our city's history - that affects me though; it is our failure to be more concerned when bookstores are no longer as important as they once used to be.
Kolatkar's poems helped me make sense of a number of things in my youth, because that is part of what all good literature must do. The Strand also introduced me to a host of other voices, imported wholesale by Shanbhag and sold at ridiculously low prices, that made it possible for thousands of people like me to walk the streets with copies of Baudelaire, Joyce and Roth in our bags. Unlike visitors to e-commerce sites, we didn't walk into bookstores with specific titles in mind. We browsed, because that was part of what made those visits so exciting. I would step out at Churchgate station, walk leisurely across DN Road, stop at every 50 metres and stare at what the many booksellers in those by-lanes had to offer. Some of those young men recommended writers I had never heard of before, and books I continue to think of fondly, long after the sellers have disappeared.
The booksellers that lined both sides of the street from Churchgate to Flora Fountain are no longer around, presumably because the BMC that doesn't evict illegal hawkers of counterfeit goods and unhealthy food outside railway stations is worried about unlicensed booksellers influencing vulnerable minds with works of fiction. No one at the BMC reads, obviously. What I remember most, of the weeks after those evictions, is a forlorn piece of cardboard tacked onto a railing, posing the question: 'What did the books do to you?'
Change is important and inevitable, of course, because cities, like civilisations, must die and be replaced. The death of a bookstore, unfortunately, is also the death of a host of possibilities, because of the role they once played in our communities. Bookstores are what gave us access to the world outside our bubbles, and introduced us to voices of protest, joy and anger that were different from our own, while helping us understand that we shared a common humanity. Over the years, spaces reserved for the selling of books have only given way to the kind of commodities that make one store indistinguishable from the next.
A part of me dismisses my own sense of nostalgia as cheap sentimentality, demanding why I didn't visit these stores more often, and why I shopped online when I could have chosen to support local sellers offline instead. The answer I give myself, to help me sleep at night, is that I continue to do both: shop online for titles that aren't stocked offline, and visit stores for the sheer pleasure of stumbling upon an unexpected treat for myself.
We say nothing when our heritage is torn down to make way for a mall. We really should say something when the bookstores go though, because their departure is a tragedy for those who must come after us. If our children are denied a place to look for books that seem interesting, how will they discover voices like that of Arun Kolatkar on their own?
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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