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.