Please reclaim your local bookshop

Published: Jan 26, 2019, 05:30 IST | Lindsay Pereira

Reading is a habit that ought to be encouraged. Unfortunately, Bombay pays a lot less attention to books than it should

Please reclaim your local bookshop
Strand Book Stall, one of Mumbai's oldest book stores, downed its shutters after 70 years last February. File pic

Lindsay PereiraI owe a lot to booksellers. I don't simply mean publishers or stores; I mean the men and women who populate sales counters at shops, as well as vendors who once lined the pavements and corners around the University of Bombay at Fort. Back then, I made it a habit of walking from my college at Marine Lines to Churchgate station for my train home, simply because it allowed me to move slowly past the rows of books on display along the way. I would skip lunch whenever possible, and use the money saved to purchase anything that caught my eye.

The interesting thing is, I was often nudged towards a particular title by the men in charge of those stalls, because they knew what they were selling. The streets of Bombay are desolate now, because so many of those vendors have been chased away. We are a city governed by people who turn a blind eye to encroachments, accept a bribe to allow vendors to cook hot food at bus stops, but cannot stand the idea of anyone selling a book in public without a licence. What have we gained by stripping those pavements of literature anyway? And who is to say that some pavements are more valuable than others simply by their proximity to Mantralaya?

I sometimes suspect the fault lies in who we have become — Netflix-obsessed, smartphone-toting, selfie-clicking men and women who walk into bookstores only when there isn't another avenue to help us kill a half hour if we arrive for a meeting too early. Things weren't always this way, of course, presumably because our parents and grandparents didn't have to worry about online shopping or binge-watching reality television. It's probably why my childhood memories of bookshops are many, all of them pleasant.

This may sound like a tall tale, but there really were bookshops outside most railway stations when I was growing up. They were primarily stationery stores that stocked academic textbooks, but almost all of them had sections dedicated to English and regional literature. They all had fiction, trade paperbacks and the odd comic book. I think of those tiny establishments with fondness, especially when confronted with bookshops in malls that now allocate more space to fidget spinners and stuffed toys than to books.

I think about those stores when large bookshops pull down their shutters, citing poor sales and blaming e-commerce portals for failing to turn profits. We are all to blame when a bookshop closes. We moan about their demise on social media platforms, because it makes us seem concerned, but do nothing concrete to help them stay in business. More and more people now indulge in what is referred to as 'showrooming' — visiting bookshops for research only to make actual purchases online, where the discounts are deeper. Lower prices are certainly attractive, but conveniently allow us to ignore the fact that real stores have real overheads. Salespeople need salaries too.

To buy something that isn't available locally is to take advantage of the Internet's power and potential; to do so when something is available around the corner is greed. I suppose disappearing bookshops score rather low on a list of priorities in a city where running water and paved streets are still a luxury for millions, but I do believe we should be doing more to encourage the reading habit, if only to ensure that today's children will end up demanding better content, better role models and better leaders when they grow up.

It isn't as far-fetched as it sounds, when one considers that WhatsApp is now responsible for much of the reading material consumed by a significant number of Indians. For a child, few things compare to the absolute joy of being surrounded by books. For me, every annual day at school ended with a trip to a book fair that took place in the main hall.

I don't recall whether or not I always went home with a new book or two, but have never forgotten the pleasure of walking down those aisles with piles of novels on either side. In the West, more and more booksellers are reclaiming their physical spaces and refusing to sell online. There are practical reasons for this decision, such as returns policies that cause them unnecessary problems, but I like to think that they are simply heroes, jumping in to save us from ourselves. Bombay may not need more statues, but it can certainly do with a lot more libraries and bookshops.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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