It is a universally recognized truth that a bookworm possessing a dreamy temperament must want to own a bookstore. Jane Austen would scoff at this inelegant theft of her famous opening line, but she would certainly approve of the sentiment behind it.
When I volunteered to work at The Bookworm on Church Street and write about the experience, it was like a teenage dream come true. I would experience being among books all day, sniffing and sorting them, feeling their backs and hugging them (all in secret, of course).
When I went to the bookstore on my first day as a sales assistant, it was raining. I was afraid that the rain would slow down my adventure. I expected the store, spread over 5,500 square feet, to be completely empty. Who would wade through puddles to visit a bookstore?
Krishna Gowda, owner, knows me well (see box). As he welcomed me into the shop he created in 2016, the first thing I did was listen to three young people. A tall girl and boy were discussing whether a book with overturned chairs on the cover was an appropriate purchase. “Japanese is good,” advised the girl. He wasn’t convinced. “It’s not fancy bro, she’s gonna like it,” the girl continued, recommending it with conviction. I approached discreetly to take a look at the title. “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Ah. One of those essential new-age reads.
I left them to their indecision and walked further inside. The vendors were sorting and arranging the books. About eight work in this store, in shifts of about eight hours. I climbed a spiral staircase to where I knew rare and original editions were kept, mostly biographies and history volumes.
For those in the know, it’s a sanctuary within a sanctuary, where the bookstore is at its quietest yet most vibrant. The mold hits you nice and square, the air is calm, and the silverfish disappears in a flash. Here, in the heart of Bangalore’s central business district, you can actually hear the chirping of mynahs and the distant call of the koel. More importantly, here are books, reveling in their disorder, unsorted and haphazardly prepared – the raison d’être of bookstore novels.
Bookstores are romanticized in Hollywood. They play a big part in pop classics like Tom Hanks’ “You’ve Got Mail” and “When Harry Met Sally.” The latter made me firmly believe that I would be looking into the eyes of the love of my life as I brushed aside a dusty tome. In reality, I would have sneezed in his face!
But the attraction of bookstores does not come only from the chance to meet a soul mate. To be a book lover is to believe in serendipity, even in the age of algorithms and “You might like this too” recommendations. ‘Moby Dick’, considered one of the greatest novels of all time, has been resurrected from obscurity – book reviewer Carl Van Doren spotted it in a second-hand bookstore, wrote about it and catapulted it to classic status. Khushwant Singh laughed in one of his columns saying he found a copy of his ‘Train to Pakistan’ which he signed and gave to a dear friend. An avid fan of Auden, I came across a cloth-bound edition of her collected poems on the first shelf I touched in a Charing Cross bookshop in London.
Joy of living slowly
No one understands this romance better than the independent bookseller. Independent bookstores don’t just sell books. Unknowingly, they have become part of the global slow and prosper life movement, despite dire predictions, not only in urban India, but also in cities like New York and London.
Good independent bookstores don’t stock all books…titles have to earn their place on the shelves. And booksellers like Krishna know their customers and their tastes, and recommend titles that aren’t on bestseller lists.
Krishna says he used to display fiction prominently earlier, but lately non-fiction has been selling the most so he has changed his tack. “Japanese pop philosophy books like ‘Ikigai,’ easy-to-read psychology/self-help books, and AI books sell the most,” he says, adding that current affairs and biographies quickly catching up. What happens to unsold books? “Since we select books to buy, that doesn’t happen much. But, once in a while, we give away books that go unsold for a long time,” he adds. As he procures the new books from regular distributors and publishers, 90% of the second-hand books he sells come from customers.
“People spend hours looking at books. Some tell me that just being surrounded by books gives them peace,” he says. Do they fly too, I ask, only half-jokingly. “Oh yeah…that’s a big deal.” Especially the manga! We keep them near the billing counter, but we still lose them. »
He loves his job and says it has given him knowledge and wealth. “But sometimes customers can be grumpy! Some want a particular edition with a particular cover. Some people ask about a book without knowing its title or author. But we try! That’s why they come back,” he says.
Do they have a strategy for dealing with rude customers? According to Shashidhar, the saleswoman: “We don’t get too many rude people, but when we do, we treat them politely or just leave them alone. People who come to bookstores are generally wise madam. Krishna says disputes are rare, but when they do arise, it is about discounts. “We politely tell them to look elsewhere if they are not satisfied… In fact, we even give them directions to other bookstores in the neighborhood!”
It’s a mistake to assume that independent bookstores, full of old-world charm, are caught in a time warp. They are tech-savvy and know how business moves online. After the second lockdown, Krishna tweeted that his store was open for business and his post went viral. “It was a big surprise and it encouraged us to try to deliver books. Now a hybrid model has come into practice,” says Krishna. On average, he ships 10 to 15 packages a day. Even as we chat, he kindly tries to persuade a regular customer to buy a “full set” instead of a single book.
For well-known writer Vivek Shanbhag, a regular at independent bookstores, the appeal is all-encompassing: “When you pick up a book and know it has passed through a few hands, it connects us all. Then there is the element of surprise. I look for a book and I find something else. That’s how I found a lot of new writers. This does not happen online. And you always bump into someone you know or make new friends, because once you’re in a bookstore, you know only book lovers come in!
On my first day as a sales assistant, I was browsing at my leisure, chatting with Krishna and his colleagues and smiling at the occasional customer. So at home I felt among these shelves that I had to remember that I was there for a story!
The season is wet, but luckily the rain has calmed down a bit. Krishna was already there. On a typical day, he enters at 10:30 a.m., about half an hour after the store opens. Trusted helpers such as Preetham and Shashi arrive earlier. Krishna’s first job is to go through his WhatsApp messages and sort out the delivery requests online!
“I answer each one of them, check the addresses and prepare the packages,” he says. Once that’s done, he looks at the price of used books. His assistants first check the books for damage, glue them back together and repair what they can. Krishna then determines their prices. The labels are stuck on accordingly.
He spends his afternoons taking stock and ordering books from distributors and publishers. Since building his business online, he’s been busy reorganizing his inventory. “It’s a day-to-day job…what I really enjoy is recommending books to my clients and researching books in response to unusual requests,” he says.
I can’t wait to talk to customers now, but it’s been a lazy afternoon. A few customers enter, including a seemingly moody regular – one of their oldest customers. He urges an assistant: “Expand your knowledge. He turns to me and gives the same advice.
After two hours, I feel strangely nervous. Am I bored living my childhood dream? Or am I not as safe with silence as I imagined? Bookstore is a curious activity – not only does it require you to be comfortable with long periods of stillness, it also requires you to be a human person. I now wanted to try to sell something.
I sold a book, where did I?
I walked to the children’s section hoping to find a kindred spirit. A young girl came in, looking lost. I smile at him shyly. She did not answer. It was harder than I imagined. I pretended to be busy, but I kept an eye open. She was definitely
Looking for something in particular. I gathered my courage and approached her. “A particular book? “Yes. ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’.”
Oh, the relief! The serendipity of which I have thought so much! That Harry Potter came to my rescue in a quiet corner of an independent bookstore says it all. Of course, it was a book I had read, a Potterhead. I felt like a skilled sales assistant. We both looked for the copy together and found two! She smiled. I did too. Maybe my first (and only?) sale.
In 2002, I hadn’t heard of Harry Potter. Fresh out of an English literature course, I stuck to my Thomas Hardys and George Eliots.
Krishna, who then sold books on the sidewalk near the now abandoned Shringar complex on MG Road, became my favorite bookseller. One day he took a big book with a dragon on its cover and gave it to me: “Read this, ma’am. That’s nice.” It was “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in the series. That night, I didn’t read it, I devoured it. The next morning, I ran to Krishna and bought all the previous books in the series, and so was born another Potterhead and a friendship that lasted two decades.
Reserve the streets
Every cultured town has a book street. Kolkata has College Street, Mumbai has ‘Book Street’ near Flora Fountain and London has Charing Cross Road. Church Street was not intended to become Bengaluru’s book haven, but it is now.
Credit goes to Premier Bookshop and its owner TS Shanbhag, who offered a 20% discount and had an unerring ability to find what you were asking for. Once closed in 2009, its customers found solace in stores like Blossom Book House and The Bookworm. Goobe’s Book Republic and Book Hive followed. Of course, there was always Select Bookstore on Brigade Road, known only to bibliophiles.