The BS column: Breaking up the neighbourhood

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, March 7 2006)

“So I’ll meet you at The Bookshop?” my friend said, and it was then that it hit us both. The Bookshop, one of Delhi’s older and more legendary bookstores, has moved, and until that moment, we’d pretended the move didn’t matter. It was only the Khan Market branch that was shutting its doors; The Bookshop would still be there, right next door in Jorbagh.

My friends and I had dropped in a few times as KD Singh held clearance sales; it was always comforting to do this and then rush next door to Jorbagh, to see the new racks go up, an assurance that The Bookshop wasn’t dying, just changing its address. Professors, fellow journalists, music buffs, those of us who’d bought books and listened to jazz and picked up concert tickets over the years at KD’s place, we all told ourselves it wouldn’t make a difference.

But bookshops are odd creatures, very different from most other retail spaces. North India has two large chains, Crossword and the Oxford Bookstore-Gallery. Unlike their counterparts in the West (Borders, Waterstones, Barnes and Noble), these two chains haven’t killed off the small, individualistic bookstore so much as pulled in new, first-time book buyers. In a smaller way, The Corner Bookstores mushrooming all around town may stock little else aside from bestsellers, but the chain does help to make the idea of buying books seem as normal as buying flowers or chocolates.

Khan Market, where The Bookshop operated for over twenty years, was one of my favourite destinations in a city rich with bookstores. Full Circle draws the yoga-and-crystal healing crowd, but it also has an interesting fiction and travel section—and its signature cafes help build the brand. Faqir Chand is browser-friendly; you may not always find what you’re looking for in its muddled stacks, but you’ll have a lot of fun looking, and they never throw you out. At Bahri’s, the staff ranges from being very helpful to utterly clueless—but it’s strong on Indian non-fiction and on books from the more academic imprints.

You could spend an entire day hanging out at just Khan Market’s bookshops: I often did, ending with The Bookshop, dropping in as much for the music, the recommendations and the certainty of good conversation as for the books. Friends from out of town were dispatched to various city bookshops according to taste. The rare book collectors were sent off to South Extension, the SF buffs were directed to either Fact & Fiction in Vasant Vihar or the crowded but well-stocked Midlands in Aurobindo Place. The serious book-lover had to drop by Bookworm in CP; the technical books fanatic couldn’t miss Galgotia’s. And newer bookshops keep coming up, like Eureka, the specialist children’s bookstore in GK II.

But Khan Market silenced even the most jaded. Friends from Bombay, Dehradun or erudite Chennai loved having a choice of four—five, counting the small one at the back that sells chiefly coffee-table books—bookstores in one space. Friends from First World countries would go off prepared to be condescending about the limited stock in Indian bookstores. They’d come back burbling about the miracle of the Special Indian Price, which can convert one POUNDS 30 hardback into one POUNDS 13 hardback plus leave you enough for three paperbacks.

What worries me about The Bookshop’s departure from Khan Market isn’t whether the store will survive—some buyers will give more custom to Bahri’s or Full Circle, some will drive those few extra kilometers quite happily for the jazz and the eclectic selection. But The Bookshop had to shut down, in part, because the market rents went up—a Swarovski crystal showroom is coming up in its place.

I would hate to see more of Khan Market’s bookshops close down or shift location, though two other bookshop owners there have indicated they might have to move if rents go any higher. And I hate the idea that, as markets and malls become more expensive spaces, bookshops might be forced out of business. One of the things that makes Delhi bearable is the fact that almost every decent market offers a good bookshop (or four), a place where you can find friends, and conversation, and retreat for just a while from the insane traffic and the power cuts. It would be tragic if we had space for fashion and chocolates, delis and luxury goods, but none for books and reading any more.





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