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The death of independent bookstores

By Bijaya Biswal

The cities I have lived in always had a greater number of liquor shops than bookstores. That meant people drank more whiskey than they read books, finished more beer cans and wine bottles in a month than novels, frequented bars on the weekends much more than they had ever been to book-cafes. It was strange because it told a lot about the culture of a generation. The denim brands at the shopping malls grew, inventing slim-fits and mid-rise and ripped jeans and flare jeans. They were wooing people by bringing back the same old fashion every five years, but they bought them anyway. There were queues outside the hookah bars of people who wanted to be accommodated, tremors shook the dance-floors of pubs on Saturdays, and theatres ran the same clichéd love stories with misogynist songs and protagonists obeying gender roles, but the shows were always houseful.

Only the bookstores remained empty. Shelves stacked with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin stared into oblivion, acknowledging that maybe Russian writers are destined for 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. The tables had chess games which were never won or lost, cups meant for coffee which was never made, walls featured framed book covers that no one looked at with coveting eyes. Maybe nerds do not go out for dates at all these days. Maybe it is Amazon or e-books or the hectic work-lives. Whatever the reason is, it was apparent that bookstores remained wanting of the attention they deserved.

Digital versus traditional bookstores

Despite the convenience offered by e-commerce sites, the effort that goes into visiting a bookshop physically to buy a book is worth it and for important reasons. Book discovery is difficult online as algorithms often end up suggesting books which are popular as opposed to good. My online experience has been limited to the Bookers and Pulitzers, or Rowling and Murakami. It is bookstores that made me discover the rare gems— Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, or Mohsin Ahmed’s Exit West, Murugan’s One Part Woman or anything by Aubrey Menen. There were books on the Adivasis, Africans and Native Americans also, which the general masses might not connect to and hence, never popularise.

On the Internet, the closest one gets to Bukowski is Post Office or Women. However, at independent bookstores, one cannot ignore South of No North placed just below. Academic reads like Chomsky’s On Language or Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists might not be everyone’s taste, but in bookshops, there is a chance of love at first sight. The mere arranging of books according to the genre can work much better than the recommendations on Goodreads. Such sites rank books according to ratings. They assume that all names are being read equally, which is far from the truth. So The Life of an Amorous Woman by Saikaku, with its low ratings, will not convince one as much as anything by Dan Brown or Tolkien. While in a bookshop, the exploration is completely one’s own, free from the bias of the majority. So people pick up books they conventionally will not.

Broke bibliophiles’ haven

For broke bibliophiles, independent bookstores offer a very good price. Though it is commonly believed that books are cheaper online, a little research can make one understand that only the bestselling books are often at a discount. Any book slightly less bought by the public almost never has a price cut of above 5-20%, while discounts at most of the bookstores begin at 20-30%.

The variety of secondhand books is larger in a brick and mortar store. Many of them come with the little notes written on the margins by previous owners. It reminds one how stories are universal legacies to be passed on to minds which are still strangers to them. E-books cannot make one feel anything close to this.

Independent bookstores— a glimmer of hope

Only last month, I discovered a book cafe in the outskirts of Bhubaneswar—“Walking Bookfairs”. They were a book-van first, travelling across the country donating story books to children. This was in an era when parents only cared to buy them textbooks. If rationally thought upon, reading was often a luxury only the privileged could afford. A hungry farmer or wage-labourer never had the time, peace of mind, or ability to read and interpret a book. But the owners of this bookstore believed knowledge was for everyone irrespective of their position in society. They carried this vision forward, made a movement out of it—publishing poetry books written by common men, organising human library events for one to borrow a person and read their lives through conversations, and finally building a book-cafe with the most hand-picked books from Faulkner to Achebe and Atwood to Ishiguro.

This is what makes independent bookstores different from Oxford/Crossword chains or websites. The motive behind them, a vision for which they relentlessly struggle is making books a more affordable and available commodity. 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 must be kept alive in libraries, bookshops and bookshelves of children, who should grow up with an open mind.

Featured image source: Pixabay

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