Picture this scene: there is arson, looting, riots. Hordes of people are breaking into shops and running away with goods. The police are chasing them, sirens resound, several cars are ablaze and helicopters loom overhead. The national media is reporting this breaking news and TVs flash images of rows of vandalized shops in the area. These stores sell all kinds of things, from sports goods to electronic equipment.
Only one store is left undisturbed. It sells books.
This is exactly what happened during the London riots last August. The looters left the bookstores unmolested because the real value of books lies in the words and ideas contained within them. Books share a unique and irreplaceable intimacy with their readers, and in this sense, are truly priceless!
As a writer and reader, when I think of the bookstores that have left a mark in my memory, my recollection turns into a procession of names and places scattered around the globe. There is the Strand Bookstore in New York, a booklover’s pilgrimage without which any visit to the Big Apple is incomplete. On numerous occasions I have spent hours browsing the three floors full of books inside, and the cartfuls of secondhand books lined on the pavement outside. The last time I was there, it was a rainy October night and the city was thronging with carnival for the Halloween parade as I walked back from The Strand with two very large bags full of books that a Dutch friend, from a UN conference that we were both a part of, helped me carry. She was amazingly kind, and also very surprised that an ordinarily prudent me had spent half my honorarium on dozens of books. There is The Junction bookstore in Thimphu which has regularly been a solace during my long stays in Bhutan. It is a smallish bookshop with a friendly girl behind the counter who unfailingly tries to order the titles I request, from David Mitchell to Yiyun Li. Books don’t reach Bhutan that easily, but her effort encourages me to return, even if to re-read the popular classics I might find in a small city. There is the historic Waterstone’s bookstore in Bloomsbury, right around the corner from me in London, where a marvelous collection of books, both new and old, draws me in, makes me linger, and vitalises my mind. It has also been a site for my birthday indulgence, when I finally purchased an armful of obscure books by remarkable authors; gems that I discovered and long lusted after.
There is the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris. Set in the Latin Quarter a few paces back from the Seine, not far from Sorbonne. This is a spectacular bookstore with a vivid literary history of association that include Joyce, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Being inside the store – whose tagline is ‘be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise’ – is a biblio-fantasy; one is transported into a forest of books, a castle of ideas. But, wait, there is more! Along the sidewalls, there are alcoves to nestle in as one browses, even a velvet-draped little old cubicle where a time-honoured typewriter sits on a small wooden desk by a chair, and a cat loiters around, gazing with languid curiousity at wandering figures of writers, such people in such a place, beings both blessed and cursed. When I made my way upstairs in this unique bookshop, I saw a bed by a bookshelf in a far corner. I felt I was not in a bookstore, but in a booklovers’ room of leisure. What I found surprised me further: the bed was a refuge for struggling starving writers who had nowhere else to stay the night in Paris. Can you imagine what might one dream of in a space like this as one sleeps surrounded by a slice of literary Paris?
“Bookstores perish for all sorts of reasons. As a site of feminist iconography, The Silver Moon women’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London was one whose demise, sometime around the turn of the last century, deeply saddened me.”
Another unusual bookstore that I love is tucked deep in the heart of rural England; in a wide open field in green Somerset stands, The Book Barn. Unless you order over the internet, you have to drive to reach the two large barns which house tens of thousands of secondhand books. From floor to ceiling, the cavernous barns are lined with inexpensive books on every conceivable topic. They are sorted into rough sections, and there is no catalogue, so one can spend entire days making one’s way through the maze of titles, delighting over the familiars and relishing new finds. It is a booklover’s serendipitous heaven.
The charm of antediluvian bookstores is easy to understand. The quaint bookshop run by a bespectacled person who has a flawless knowledge of the literary merit stocked in-store, is almost a cliche. And these shops have a character that cannot easily be rivaled by the large modern bookshop inspite of the cafes and the fancy stationery, music and gift kiosks inside.
So, envision my surprise when I found that my favourite bookshop had come to be a place which was part of a modern chain of bookstores – The Borders Bookstore in Bristol.
It was a store that was a refuge for me at a time of transition in my life. I went to it frequently. It was the largest bookstore in Bristol – a city in the west of England – that I lived in for a few years. Located near the University on Queens Road, the shop announced itself in a simple red-black logo. Inside the large interiors were two floors full of books, ranging from commerce to poetry. At the time, I had recently resigned from a tenured academic post in order to work on my novel. My monograph on Economics Philosophy was in the process of publication. It was a period of uncertainty in more ways than one. All I could think about, day and night, was writing and reading. I lived in a world of words that was gradually growing itself around me. I used to scribble a lot, stare from my study window at the sea in the far distance, go walking a lot, work on a 1500 piece jigsaw to calm myself, and of course, spend every other evening at the Borders Bookstore.
On bleak wintry evenings and on balmy summer evenings alike, a bearded blind busker would sit outside the Borders bookstore playing his flute. Dropping small change into his upturned cap lying on the pavement, I used to enter the glass-fronted sandstone building, and be transported into a world of possibility. Enclosed by books— thousands of them— I solemnly lingered by the sections marked literature, fiction, classics, poetry. There were tables and chairs all around the store where people communed with, or over, books. The newly unsalaried me bought books when I could. At other times, I would sit, scribbling or reading, on one of the sofas in the Starbucks that marked a chocolate-coloured section on the top floor. With a spark of creative ingenuity necessitated by my constraints, I realised that if I ordered a ‘double tall dry cappucino’, I could buy hours of time on the cafe sofa. The drink was reasonably strong, relatively inexpensive, and three-fourths foam. The foam stayed in the mug long after the liquid was gone. Hence, whenever anyone came to clear the table, my cup would always appear full (as long as you don’t dust the drink with cinnamon powder, cinnamon eats foam)! So, I read books by Hesse, Huysmans, Goethe, Sacher-Masoch, Rilke, Apuleis, and many more. Borders was where I bought the first three volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Borders was also where I read Sartre’s Nausea in its entirety, and then, with a delirious longing to possess those words and retain that feeling, walked up to the checkout and bought the same book after I had finished reading it in-store. Roquentin’s portrayal of the absurd human condition was a masterpiece of existential angst. The world around me was emptied of a certain reality, it was as if I had walked into a Magritte or a De Chirico painting, the novel echoed what I felt (at so many levels, including, on a lighter note, the recognition that never have I unconsciously not played Anny’s game of ‘perfect moments’!).
Borders UK doesn’t exist anymore. It died some years ago in the wake of the financial crisis. The coordinates 51°27’24″N 2°36’24″W mark the exact spot where Borders Bristol once stood, it now lives as a ghost on an internet map. The house of words is now a big Wilkinson’s store that sells household commodities for less. An apt makeover for these days of the credit crunch.
Bookstores perish for all sorts of reasons. As a site of feminist iconography, The Silver Moon women’s bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London was one whose demise, sometime around the turn of the last century, deeply saddened me. These days, the escalating costs of retail space and proliferation of online retailing are largely instrumental in the withering away of bookstores all over the world. When one can buy from Amazon for less and from the comfort of one’s room, why go to a bookstore? Because, as a commercial cousin of the library, a bookstore offers a physical space where one encounters the might of the written word made profitably possible.
Bookstores represent the intersection of knowledge and commerce in all its razor-sharp double-edgedness. The power that works its way through a social organism by channelising unthinking commerce, can be countered by the insertion of thoughtful profitability. Right from the invention of printing press, books have circulated thoughts across time and space, for better and worse. Books bleed ideas. Books change minds. Books cause thought. And for these reasons, bookstores in all their variants are a special place for people— with or without money, with or without academic access— who might read, even if like a butterfly, pollinating their minds with ideas.