The cities I have lived in always had more liquor shops than bookstores. The denim brands at the shopping malls grew, inventing slim-fits and ripped jeans and flare jeans, wooing people by bringing back the same old fashion every five years. There were queues waiting outside hookah bars, and theatres ran the same clichéd love stories with misogynist songs but the shows were always houseful.
Only the bookstores remained empty.
Shelves stacked with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Pushkin stared into oblivion, slowly acknowledging that maybe Russian writers are destined to live lonely lives. Kafka was disheartened, Hemingway grunted in anger, Plath returned to her bell jar and Shakespeare could not decide whether to be or not to be.
Maybe nerds these days don’t go out for dates at all. Maybe it’s Amazon or e-books or the hectic work lives. Whatever the reason is, it was apparent that bookstores did not get the attention they deserved.
Despite the convenience offered by e-commerce sites, book discovery is difficult online, since presently, an algorithm often ends up suggesting to you only books which are popular.
My online experience has been limited to the Bookers and Pulitzers, Rowling and Murakami – but bookstores made me discover Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, or Mohsin Ahmed’s Exit West, Murugan’s One Part Woman, books on the adivasis, Africans and Native Americans which the general masses might not popularise. Online, the closest you can get to Bukowski is Post Office or Women – but at bookstores, you won’t be able to ignore South of No North.
Academic reads like Chomsky’s On Language or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists or Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif might not be of our taste but at bookshops, there is a chance of love at first sight. Even sites like Goodreads often rank books on the very assumption that all these names are being read equally.
In bookshops, your exploration is completely your own, free from the tyranny of majority, which lets you find books you conventionally won’t.
For broke bibliophiles, independent bookstores offer very good prices. Online, unpopular books almost never have price cuts, and if they do, it might vary from 5-20% – while discounts at most bookstores begin at 20-30%.
The variety of second-hand books is larger in a brick and mortar store, and with it come the little notes written on the margins by previous owners, reminding you how stories are universal legacies to be passed on to minds which are still strangers to them. I wish e-books could make us feel anything closer to this.
Only last month, I discovered a book-cafe in the outskirts of Bhubaneswar called “Walking Bookfairs” who were formerly a book-van, travelling across the country to libraries and villages bringing story-books to little children in an era when parents only care to buy them textbooks.
Reading was often a luxury limited to the privileged – since a hungry farmer or wage-labourer never had the time, peace of mind or ability to read/interpret books. But this bookstore believed knowledge was for everyone, irrespective of social positions, and made a movement out of their vision; publishing poetry books written by common men, organising human-library events in which you could borrow a person and read their lives through conversations and finally, building a book-cafe with handpicked books from Faulkner to Chinua Achebe, Atwood to Ishiguro.
This is what makes independent bookstores different from large chains or websites. Ray Bradbury once warned, “You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”. Culture is the essence of human existence and books are its very embodiment where our history, politics, mythology and scientific advancements are preserved and remembered. They deserve to be kept alive, in libraries, bookshops and the bookshelves of little children who do not deserve to grow up with closed minds.
(Bijaya Biswal is a 22-year-old student of Medicine and Surgery. She takes a keen interest in art movies, theatre and books on history and philosophy.)