On Bookstores

I have this ability to get completely lost in a bookstore. By lost, I don’t mean the way I get lost in the Kumbh Mela or the bylanes of Basavanagudi. Lost here means I lose track of time, of others around me, and all I can see is more and more titles beckoning tantalizingly to be read, one by one.

This ability is by no means unique, I suppose. Plenty of people get lost this way in a bookstore.

And it’s not restricted to bookstores, in my case. I get lost in libraries as well. And a few other things and people, but all of that is out of the scope of this post.

So bookstores. I love them. So much that when we go shopping together, my mother assigns my sister to watch over me to ensure I don’t enter one and turn untraceable for hours on end (“No Priya, not the bookstore. We have to be at their house in two hours!’).

Guess she’s the one who started me off on that. For several birthdays, I remember being gifted books. Yeah, my parents did get me new clothes too, but those were the ritual things. The main attraction, the centerpiece, the Gift would be a book. With a note inside. At first, I just watched as they picked my gift off the shelves of the bookstore, and made the right noises (‘Gurgle!’ was about the only thing I said all day anyway back then) when shown books with colourful covers and even more colourful pages.

I think I’ve been visiting Nagasri Bookstore in Jayanagar since before I learnt my first letter. It soon became a well-established ritual to head there right after the term exams. It was my parents’ way of bringing in the holiday mood, I can say. But the first time I was thoroughly transfixed in a bookstore was at Manipal Center. I think I was nine. The books were hardcover, unlike the ones I was used to at Nagasri and Prism. There was a mildly ostentatious feel to the place. The Nancy Drew titles were different from the ones I’d seen before. And they were ridiculously overpriced. Then there were these history books with full colour photographs. And these remarkably child-friendly-looking encyclopaedias. They had to drag me away. I sulked.

Since then, it feels like a spirit enters me each time I step into a room full of books. I just have to read through every page I see. I’ve been told enough times about being in a bookstore and not a library (most notably by the proprietor of Prism in Jayanagar. That jerkofellow tried saying the same thing to me when I was reading away at Nagasri’s, but that proprietor, genial man that he is, said ‘It’s ok, ma’. Since then, I have never bought anything at Prism, and I make it a point to buy something at Nagasri if I spend more than a few minutes there).

Blossoms on Church Street is a different ballgame. They give you coffee while you browse! But somehow, the backroom look discourages me from browsing for too long. And the crowd as well. But that place, I must admit, is a treasure trove. They have everything, right from a travelogue by Michael Palin to random American romance novels. But then, a place like that simply has to be good, given its clientele, given that it takes second-hand books, and given that it spans over three floors.

I was rather content with my choices in bookstores, when my friend introduced me to Crossword on Residency Road. I must admit, the place with its multiple floors and large floor space scared me. I should have been pleased at the sofas and bean bags for people to sit and browse through the titles, and the coffee counter too, but I strangely was not.

The place was bigger than forty Nagasris. And held probably as many books. They were all organized by topic. There was plenty of Young Adult Fiction. Plenty of Indian English writing. Stuff that should have floored me. I felt sick and refused the coffee my friend offered, and in quiet defiance didn’t relax on the bean bags. Instead, I prowled the aisles, looking to get transfixed. The way that went, it was the first time I was asking if we could leave the bookstore and go have some chocolate cake.

I have never quite understood my revulsion for those sort of bookstores. Somehow I can never seem to find anything I like in those places, even though they are positively spilling over with books of all sorts. And when I do pick up a book and buy it, there’s always the nagging feeling that I’ve been had.

Someone suggested it’s possibly the user experience. And personalization. I’ve been seeing the frail, sharp-grinning proprietor with the faint coastal Karnataka accent from way too early and it’s etched in my mind that a good bookstore has atleast a hundred books per square foot, and it irks me when the proprietor or his assistant don’t magically reach for the book I ask and materialize it out of thin air.

But no, I adore the UCI Library where none of those things happen.

Maybe it’s the exclusivity? Probably. Along with the user experience, which makes me feel like I’ll simply love every book that belongs in that space. Maybe it’s the discounts he gives me. Maybe it’s the small talk.

But even if all those are true, I should feel some semblance of lostness when I enter Crossword near Miniforest, or Landmark. I have slowly stopped feeling those things. I wonder why.

Maybe it’s that you don’t have to be a lover of books to love these new-fangled bookstores. The coffee and bean bags seem too populist. As is the selling of non-book merchandise like junk jewelry and fancy-shmancy notebooks (I must admit here between my sister and me, we own a good many of those).

But it’s not just that… the same is true of Barnes and Noble here, but I actually love the place, and spent many wonderful hours chewing on a pizza roll while reading out fantasy fiction to my nephew, or chugging cherry coke and quietly reading Jane Austen.

Maybe because the choice of titles is too wide. Maybe they try to please everyone. Maybe it’s that the assistants aren’t the sorts who read, so they are unable to give you recommendations or locate the book you ask for without looking it up in a database.

Maybe it’s also because I don’t recognize the authors and titles anymore, being rather cut off from pop culture, and having distanced myself from mainstream media. Whose book reviewing skills are also on the decline. Combined with really bad writing, pretentious authors and all-too-attractive book covers and blurbs. Give me the orange-and-white Penguin ones anyday! And well, my own prejudices stand in the way too… gone are the days when I can read some pretentious NRI-writing-about-India tripe and like it, or be accepting of an Indiabashing point of view.

Maybe it’s a combination of all these things which contribute to my feeling like I just don’t belong there. Due to which I walk out, and back to my safe confines, where I can ask ‘Do you have Shame?’ to which people won’t do a doubletake, but smilingly retrieve Salman Rushdie’s book.

I wouldn’t agonize over this for so long if it weren’t for the fact that having loved books and bookstores for so long now, I have a sort of pipe dream to have my own bookstore. Appa has, on occasion half-jokingly discussed having a bookstore post-retirement with the proprietor of Nagasri. Such a nice, peaceful existence, he says. To which the proprietor gives his ‘Not on your life! Don’t you desire a tension-free retirement?!’ look. It’s apparently a lot tougher than it seems.

It’s not like I’ve not tried finding out… each and every time I ask him how he manages to stock exactly the sort of things I like, he just thinks I’m complimenting him (which I seem to do every single time I visit, anyway) and laughs and shrugs it off as usual.

So, well, let’s get to the bottom of this mystery. Which is your favourite bookstore? Why do you like the place? Tell me, in the comments section. I need to know, so that forty years later, the bookstore I own, or the online bookstore I design, has the best possible user experience. And by best possible, I mean one that I’d like.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
This entry was posted in analysis, Bangalore, Reading and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to On Bookstores

  1. sg says:

    *same pinch* ๐Ÿ˜€
    although my bad habit wasn’t particularly encouraged by my family, i managed to get bitten all on my own!

    plus this is where rain wasted this past weekend trip of yours, one thing which doesn’t let me let go is the libraries at this school i apparently went to ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • wanderlust says:

      yeah, i have full *respect* for the extent you got bitten all on your own.

      yesssss…. i have heard many wonderful things about the libraries in your school, and it’d’ve been rather awesome to visit them, but circumstances…. circumstances….. anyway. my library is not so bad. and the rain here is worse than what was the case over the weekend. so brought home a few books to kill time with ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Logik says:

    Personally I’d like it if a bookstore should ideally be a larger version of the bookshelf you have at home. Not a humongous building. I wouldn’t mind slightly dim lighting (enough to read comfortably). Bright libraries bore me.

    1. Premier bookshop was lovely. I was browsing in a section. Thatha owner ( if I remember right) came and gave recos.
    I could only visit it once though though. It has closed now.

    2. Blossoms has that cozy feel in the top floors at least.
    Shady enough to pick a random book, take a chair and start reading. Discounts are good.
    Bottom floors have just shiv khera/dan brown/GRE type of books.

    3. But something like Goobe’s in Church street looks like a very clean bookshelf -kirana store sized. Definitely not something that my bookshelf would look like :P.
    Not too enticing, despite the awesome name.

    4. Landmark is only good for buying gifts like CDs watches and other kitsch. Blah place.

    5. gangaram’s as a bookstore is good, but the prices are slighta ripoff, compared to say blossoms.

    6. Higginbothams,the one at MG road – Satisfies most of my requirements, but somehow I can never find the books I’m looking for. Rejected. Surprisingly, the railway station ones are really good, and helpful.

    Will add more as I remember.

    • wanderlust says:

      >> I’d like it if a bookstore should ideally be a larger version of the bookshelf you have at home. You said it!

      Ahh gangarams. not worth the hype. i have never found anything i’ve wanted there. for a bit, i wondered if something was wrong with me, coz Bangalore times always praised that place like crazy. Yes, higginbothams is a good place. though i’ve noticed what i tend to do is browse the titles there and then buy them for much lower from the pavement fellows outside ๐Ÿ˜›

      i should also add the bookstore at SFO. (at the airport, not the city). red wood decor. soft lighting – just good enough for reading, not harsh enough to mar the decor. smell of coffee and baking. 10/10 for ambiance. good books among lots of pseudish titles, but it was a nice way to spend 45 minutes.

      • Logik says:

        I found “Bookworm” on MG road to satisfy all the conditions that I wanted in a book store.. yay.
        Also, the price is the same as Blossoms for new books. So I’m now speculating why a larger store such as blossoms is not giving me the best price possible.

    • S says:

      Yeah, the Premier guy was amazing. For all the apparently careless disorganisation in the shopย โ€”ย there were Hindi literature books in the Physics “stack”, etc. โ€”ย the owner was actually intimately familiar with all the booksโ€ฆ I once spent half an hour searching for an old book, then gave up and asked him, who without looking put his hand in the right place (it was behind two layers of books in the shelves) and pulled it out.

      Too bad it’s closed (I had to go back and change the sentences here to past tense :p); here’s a eulogy by Guha.

  3. idlichutney says:

    This post resonates with me so much! I love getting lost in bookstores. And having grown up in bookless Bombay I have fallen in love with Bangalore and its bookstores.
    I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned Gangarams, its one of my favourite places to hang out. Any good second hand bookshops in the city?

    In the US, i find that smaller bookshops that arent part of a chain are much better than barnes and nobles type places. Chains seem too impersonal.

    • wanderlust says:

      bookless bombay? seriously? i didn’t know that. poor y’all.
      as for gangarams, i learnt rather early on that i wouldn’t find much of what i liked there, so i ended up never visiting that place. due to which it’s rather distant in my memory.
      church street has a lot of those. blossoms is one of them.

      very true, the one about bookshops that are not part of a chain. if you’re part of a chain, you need to keep thinking of the larger picture, you can’t really customize your inventory to suit the tastes of the population around your store. that’s where nagasri wins.
      however, the proprietor opened another two bookshops in south bangalore – jnr 9th block or something. the plus is he created the brand first and then opened it in places where he knew such a brand would be appreciated. quite unlike Landmark or Crossword which are just soulless impersonal chains that are not really bookshops but are just stores that ‘also stock books’.

      • buddy says:

        lol yes landmark is a stationery/gift shop that accidentally sells books.
        there is one special shop in bombay, strand book store in the very heart of the city, fabulous place.

  4. dhaval says:

    Well, I quite like buying stuff at crosswords, I frequently get discounts there. But I will agree with crossword not being a place where you can get lost in. I attributed it to the crowd. I prefer being comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans (well used, and quite comfortable, not the shiny new stuff), and you see this crowd, “Oh, you know we love books” but you don’t get that vibe because either they are interested in the “pseud” stuff (you know what I mean), or they are dressed up in this shiny way as if they are going out to a club and all. I am pretty sure I am being unfair to a lot of people, but that just did not fit with me.

    I loved blossoms, got nice recommendations by folks there, and also landmark (gasp!). One store I was not a big fan of was the chain in bangalore (can’t recall the name, it was in indiranagar, jayanagar, malleswaram IIRC) which a lot of people were.

    I think some of the bookstores I liked were because of the smell. The smell of books. They were made just for books and were always for books. Always comes in these places where you have a *lot* of books.

    • wanderlust says:

      oh i don’t know about dressing… people all over bangalore pretty much dress the same, on average. or maybe i don’t notice people’s clothes that much.

      do you mean the oxford bookstore? i dont much like the place because the bookshelves are too sparse!

      ah, smell of books ๐Ÿ˜› i hear this argument being put forth by anti-ebook folks. it’s just cockroach and lizard eggs and silverfish ๐Ÿ˜›

  5. I always had a better book reading experience in Bangalore and now that I am in Ahmedabad, miss some of those stores.

    I never grew up on books and never saw a book-store in till I saw my school library in 10th (schools before that didn’t have them!)…My first experience with Crossword was way back in 1998-99 and I completely enjoyed the place. It allowed me to dip myself into books and just get away from everything else around. Often missed college then to read books there, had little money and somehow the place encouraged readers to read more and more.

    Things are different now, but I am still amazed by book-stores, especially the ones in small lanes and completely stuffed with books and run by old men/ women. Bangalore and Delhi have some such tiny fantastic bookstores!

  6. Malaveeka says:

    I hated Prism too. And was totally amazed by Strand.

    Were we the same person and then you did engineering and I did law?

  7. pras says:

    mt. carmel college’s library was housed in a lovely building with broad marbled window seats – the deeper you went into the library, the darker and quieter it was and the books untouched even…

  8. Satish Bhat says:

    A slightly musty smell in the air, wooden tables and shelves groaning under tons and tons of books, and people who look like they are characters come to life from a R K Narayan’s book…this would be my idea of Eden ! I’m in Chennai and have fond memories of lending libraries and Landmark (the old store). Thanks for the mention of Blore bookstores, next time I’m there I’ll drop by these places !

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