Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Bookstore Mojo

What makes a great bookstore?
Size can be one big draw. A massive store with miles and miles of shelves can be mesmerising. A riot of colours of the spines looking like a kaleidoscope from a distance.
Knowledgeable store attendants can be another. This, for example, distinguishes every counter guy at the College Street bookshops. For every arcane request you make, they invariably manage to come up with "Apatoto-out-of-print-oi-lekhoker-second-boita-achhey-Bibhu-Robin-Wooder-hardcoverta-nama".
A critical part is also an understanding management. That don't insist on hissing "May I help you" when you are silently devouring Tintin in Congo in one corner!
Bargains are most welcome. Haggling preferable, but not essential. A 15% discount on the cover price makes the book go from exorbitant to reasonable in a jiffy. Or at least, seems like it.

In my book, however, the biggest attraction of a bookstore can be the promise of serendipity.
You are wandering in a largish bookstore, lazily flipping through books without really looking for anything in particular. And then you come across this book. It could be a book, which you borrowed as a child/youngster and had to return before you could finish it. It could be an out-of-print title, which you were hunting for a very long time. Or it could be a book, which you had only seen in your dreams. Or best of all, it could be a book that you felt somebody should write one day!

On a recent holiday to Dubai, I was taken to a bookstore called Kinokuniya. By my sister, who knows exactly where to take me to if she has to shop uninterrupted with my wife.
And for the first time, I realised that the Bengali word digonto-bistrito ("spreading to the horizons") can be applicable to a bookstore. I walked into the store and two minutes in, I could see neither the entrance nor the extremity. I was excited enough to start taking pictures before an attendant requested me not to!

What an amazing place to get lost in, which got me wondering about my favourite bookshops.

The Landmark Bookstore in Chennai is this huge expanse of books and CDs that you can get lost in. As is Walden in Hyderabad.
I remember these two stores very fondly because the first two postings of my first job were in these two cities and the two bookstores provided immense succour in times of stress. More specifically, I completed my entire Calvin & Hobbes collection from these two - apart from several other serendipitous findings.
My only crib about Landmark is that (probably) because of its size, the store attendants are uniformly clueless as are the merchandisers. Calvin & Hobbes comics, for example, are always found under the Children's comic section along with Superman, Tenali Rama and Tintin!

On the other hand, my latest favourite bookstore - Quill & Canvas in Gurgaon - is owned by this very up-to-date lady, who manages to recommend very good books basis what I bring to the billing counter. And that invariably gets my bill to inflate one more time! Bookstores should realise that the additional salary one has to pay to well-informed attendants is more than recovered by the additional stuff they manage to subtly push.
Quill & Canvas has the added benefit of having an art gallery within the bookstore, which is a stunning way of keeping browsers engaged.
And inspiring too. I always realise that I have to work much harder to buy that Shuvoprasanna whenever I am in Q&C!

Serendipity is something which I found in abundance in Bangalore. The Strand, in particular. Mumbai's iconic bookstore has a smallish setup in Manipal Centre (off MG Road) and has a rather quirky attitude towards classifying books. So, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy would be found in Popular Science. Lust for Life would be hidden among coffee table books on Art. And of course, there is the standard 15-20% discount applied to all purchases which becomes much more lucrative at the time of their Annual Sale.
Many Bangaloreans have gushed about Premier Book Stall (I hope I got the name right). It is a bookstore, which looks as if the walls have been constructed out of books. I did not find it too great simply because browsing was next to impossible. The massive, slightly leaning stacks of books meant that you could never pull out a book without the whole edifice crumbling all over you.
On the other hand, Blossoms on Church Street is a happy mix of chaos and order. Two floors packed with new and old books. All kinds of books. The staff is cheerfully clueless about location of titles but very helpful in being unobtrusive and letting you browse to your heart's content. Their second-hand selection is supposed to be very good (and at nice discounts too!) but unfortunately (and surprisingly), I have never bought anything from them.

Coming to my absolute favourite bookstore, I have to admit it is not really a 'store' but more of a 10 feet by 8 feet booth on a pavement near South Calcutta's busiest junction. The stock is only about 100 titles of the latest bestsellers - in both English and Bengali. The junction is so dusty and dirty that all the books he keeps have to be wrapped in polythene.
I have been buying books from this place for the last 25 years or so. My standard operating procedure used to be to go to Oxford Bookstore or any other browsable shop and take down the titles. Barun-babu, the shop owner, used to get them for me within a day at a 10% discount.
Apart from the obvious ones, I have lost count of the number of obscure books he has tracked down for me. My standard instruction would be to give him the name and a budget. He got the book only if it was within the budget!
He knew about books. He read most of them. Gave a whispered review for most of the books I picked up. Even let me 'borrow' books overnight to sample before I bought them. A pretty bad business decision, I would say (because I did not like the book).
Once when I had resigned myself to buying a hardcover (the fourth Harry Potter), he asked me to wait for a week since the paperback was about to be released. I guess he lost about 200 bucks in the price differential of the two books and got a lifelong devotee. Not a bad business decision, I would say.

To get back to Kinokuniya, I bought a really eclectic selection of books, all of which were horrendously expensive and weighed down our luggage a lot but TOTALLY worth it - in hindsight!
A lovely 2010 calendar of 12 posters of iconic movies.
A pop psychology book, which classifies people on the basis of their favourite (Hollywood) movies. There is such a crying need for a Bollywood equivalent!
The best stories from The Onion - America's Finest News Source.
99 classic movies, explained in 4 comic panels. This is like a Bluffer's Guide. But why would anybody want to bluff about seeing Chinatown or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly? They should be seen anyway!
And The Rough Guide to Film. Which is, well, a rough guide to film.
Here, take a look at the booty!

Updated to add: Here is a list of the 10 Coolest Bookstores in the US. New York has the most entries, followed by San Francisco.


buddy said...

i know exactly how you feel,
I apologize for the self promotion, but

Anonymous said...

i dont know how to describe what i feel, but all i know is I LOVE this post

The Marauder's Map said...

Very good analysis of bookstores. And I'm glad to see someone shares my opinion of Premier Bookstore in Bangalore. It's very done to wax eloquent about it, but I always found it very higgledy-piggledy and could never find anything I wanted, though serendipity happened sometimes. Blossoms, on the other hand, remains my eternal favourite. Not just because of the discounts but because you get books that are never stocked by chain bookstores. They have an awesome collection of David Lodge novels, for instance, that I've never seen at any posh bookstore.

anil said...

A bookshop has to smell like a bookshop ... most new age bookshops have this sanitized corporate smell about them which I hate. Nothing like the smell of a freshly baked book.

Sue said...

Giggles in Madras. Inside Taj Coromandel, I think. The lady knows her books. You have to walk in sideways but what a collection!

Diptakirti Chaudhuri said...

@ Anil: Absolutely. The smell (fragrance?) is critical.