My first paid job was at an independent bookstore in Kuala Lumpur’s fashionable Telawi neighbourhood. It was the summer before I turned 16. I had just finished school, and under circumstances I can only explain as combustion of family dysfunction and personal callowness, neither plans nor ambitions existed regarding my future. I spent just over a month at that job. I could not get the hang of the cash register, and the entire situation— circumstantially and emotionally— was a little bizarre, but those weeks turned out to be pivotal. The seeming lack of direction in my life was a blessing in disguise; heading nowhere, I fell heart-first into the artistic subculture where my career began, thanks to friends made at the time.
I spent that month reading, reading, reading. I read Nabokov. I read Kundera. I read Kerouac. I read the classics so I could avoid them later. I read all the dead white men I would spend the next several years uninterested in, because after that first job at Silverfish Books, I found and fell into a compulsive affair with Payless – a chain that stocked books sourced from second hand stores in the United States. I read Cisneros. I read Rich. I read Anzaldua. I read Marmon Silko. I read the obscure and under-rated. I would never complete a tertiary education. These books, bought cheap and in bulk, were my teachers. They taught me not just how to write from the borderlands, but also how to thrive in a certain kind of world as a certain kind of woman.
Five years into living in Chennai, I take the news that Landmark is phasing out its books section with sadness. Their annual sales used to put me into raptures. Of course, like so many other readers, I am complicit in their failure. When Flipkart and the even more steeply-discounted Homeshop18 came on the scene brandishing cut-rate prices and the magic mantra “cash on delivery”, I made the switch. (Psst – there’s even one terribly useful website, www.indiabookstore.net, that pulls up all the listings from a range of digital stores).
Yet I hope that what is, effectively, the end of the beloved retailer as we know it will lead to the sprouting of secondhand bookstores. We won’t stop buying books, but we will certainly run out of shelf space. Pre-owned books come with many perks. In London a few months ago, I visited the iconic Skoob (its offshoot in Kuala Lumpur was another playground of my teens) and ticked a couple of titles off my wishlist. They were in great condition, and significantly cheaper, even in the Queen’s currency than new copies bought in India. Out of print books abound in such shops. In the past, although it’s no longer an interest of mine, I’ve also found books inscribed by the author.
I still pay it forward, though. Whenever I come across shelves of free books or book swaps in cafes and other places, I press a lipstick print on the title page of my own little paperback and leave it for whoever is meant to find it. I may be a cheapo when it comes to purchasing, but I do believe in giving my own work away often. As off-putting as I found the staff of Paris’ famed Shakespeare & Company when I visited this summer, I blew a kiss to the ghosts of Hemingway, Nin and Ginsberg and left some copies there too. [Later, I learnt that the establishment now operating under this name isn’t actually the one Hemingway – whom in rather trite fashion I was reading at the time – frequented, but you know what they say. You can’t unkiss a kiss.]
So no, I don’t like bookstores, however iconic they may be, which are burdened by their legacies. I do like ones that strive to mean something in the present moment, like Singapore’s Books Actually – which publishes chapbooks, organises readings and has a friendly resident cat. There, I’ve never left books for free, because they care enough about indie authors to actually stock them.
I recently came across this word: tsundoku. A web meme defines it as follows: “buying books and not reading them; letting books pile up unread on shelves or floors or nightstands”. I remain old-fashioned: because I need to see the spines of books and touch their pages, I cannot convert to a more efficient electronic device.
I am comforted by the presence of books as much as by their contents. I don’t go to libraries because I am selfish, slow and scattered. But I do go to bookstores because they soothe me. I think it’s because they carry, tangibly, the memory of trees. To step into a bookstore is to step into a forest of stories. We lose our forests to far worse things than literature.