The Small Bookshop Survival Guide

A small bookshop has opened up, a couple of months ago, on the other side of the street I live on. I was there when it had opened: was offering huge discounts for the opening week. Not a single discounted book was on my wish list. After a very quick browsing session, I walked out, slightly unhappy that all relatively tolerable bookshops are far away or in the cloud. I miss Waterstones. Crossword has become a stationery shop that sells books and Landmark is a hassle to get to.

Quote from The Journey to the East, Hermann Hesse

My interest in bookshops grew sometime when I was seven, I think, when my father used to take the entire family at least once a week to the CLS Bookshop, in Nampally, in Hyderabad. We all had our aisles. I think my mother was the only one who used to get a bit bored there – she is a voracious reader of Marathi literature – and they didn’t stock those. I used to be glued to the comic book section. My father didn’t believe in buying comics. So, while going to the bookshop was always a pleasure and excitable event, leaving the shop (empty-handed) usually was a disappointment. Somewhere early in life I decided that I would never own comics and that all my life I would have to read borrowed comic books. It seemed to me he was against that too.

In 2001, I was in Hyderabad for a day, and after the meeting, I insisted that my friend take me to the CLS shop. I couldn’t recall that it was in Nampally, then but I described the entire surrounding area to her (in case and as if nothing had changed in 25 years). We did find it, it is derelict now, and it doesn’t seem to have as many books as I remember, when I was younger. And I was surprised, that in all these years that I have been nostalgic about the shop – I was never curious what CLS stood for. (It’s Christian Literature Society; I discovered that in 2001)

But we had a lot books. He used to buy many books, except comics. So we had Aesop’s Fables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, Bal Bhagvatam, All of the Panchtantra and Hitopadesha series.  And many more. Very few of these books had pictures in them and they had many difficult words. So our father got us the Kingsway Illustrated Dictionary and a few years later, he bequeathed his Oxford Concise Dictionary to us. The Kingsway Dictionary, I have fond memories – I liked that because it had many pictures in it – the paper was glossy and the pictures were fabulous. I am sure one of my younger cousins or a niece or a nephew is still using it somewhere. I was not very keen relinquish my favourite dictionary, but the Oxford Concise was too tempting. The word “set” I had been told, had a hundred meanings, and my Kingsway had only twelve. And of course, we were growing up – it probably had meanings of words that I couldn’t imagine asking my parents, my teachers and definitely not my sister. We got a big fat dictionary, yes, but still no comics.

I promised myself, I’d have all the comics when I started earning. I told my father that – and he encouraged me to do that, and he wasn’t sarcastic. In the meanwhile, I was graduating from the Secret Seven to the Hardy Boys to the Three Investigators (library only – my father wouldn’t buy these books either). My father’s bookshelf was ever-growing – with titles that didn’t make sense. And because of sheer curiosity and the cover pages of the books on his shelves, I was drawn into the world of Richard Bach, Hermann Hesse and Martin Buber and RD Laing. Not much was understood, but it was still read. I stayed away from Demian, because of the cover. For a very long time, I did not buy books. The library circuit was flourishing in Pune and in Mumbai, when I was a student.

Then, I started earning.

I still did not buy comic books, but was raiding my father’s bookshelf more often. I think age made a lot of difference, and we now could talk books, not just read them. A few years later, he passed away and that entire bookshelf was now mine.

My father rarely borrowed books. Even his use of libraries was limited to reference or research. We never understood why he couldn’t do what we did – subscribe to a library. We ended up reading more books for a tenth of the money he spent on books. And when we moved homes, which was often, at least three crates were of books and such. Once, reading through a book that he owned, I saw many notes in the margins. Blue ball-pen. Pencil. Black ink. Darker blue-ball pen. Thinner Black pen. Faded pencil. Even the handwriting was slightly different in each of the notes. He had read his books more than once. I smiled, as I read the text underlined in faded blue:

I, whose calling was really only that of the violinist and story-teller, was responsible for the provision for the music of the group, and I then discovered how a long time devoted to small details exalts us and increases our strength. ~ Hermann Hesse, in The Journey to the East

I think I know now why he did not buy comics for us. In his mind, perhaps the re-readability of those books is limited. In the last ten years, my bookshelf has been stacking-up with alarming consistency. It has swelled to the limit of spilling books, when my mother with her easy air of finality, warned me that I was not to buy any more books unless I bought a bookshelf. For many years now, I have not joined any library, except a sweet birthday present – a subscription to the British Library – and I don’t borrow books nor do I lend, with a few exceptions.

That small book shop, which opened up, a couple of months ago, on the other side of the street I live on seemed to want me to step in yesterday, if only to waste a few minutes of my time. After about an hour, I put six books on his counter and asked him to process them. I asked him to give me good neighbourly discount and even informed him the price of these books on Flipkart, to give him a benchmark of expectations. He asked, “Are you going to return these?”

I looked at him with surprise.

“If you return these books after reading them, I’ll buy them back at half price, else I’ll discount them, almost to the Flipkart price.”

This is a great survival tactic for small bookshop owners, I thought, notwithstanding my proclivity to keep books in my bookshelf. I have many books that I have bought, read, and not liked, but I have never returned them. They are in the lower shelf, stacked up, not sideways. Perhaps this was a good way to make shelf-space and avoid being admonished by my mother.

“Give me the discount, I won’t be returning them,” I said.

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6 thoughts on “The Small Bookshop Survival Guide

  1. Not being allowed to buy comics resonates so loudly with me. My dad used to take us to book fairs/stores/libraries, he even used to make us hold summer libraries, so people in my colony could exchange books and not have to buy them. My dad was not an avid reader of books, but he always wanted us to be different. I blame him for my short attention span. :)

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