Speaking Volumes: Bookshoppery

(I’d written most of this column when I sent an idle tweet out, asking people to name their favourite bookshops. The response went on for the next two days: below the column, some favourite tweets. Thank you all for crowdsourcing this! )

Published in the Business Standard, May 20, 2013



Bookshops that aren’t really bookshops have an unmistakeable feel about them, like faux Italian cafes that serve butter chicken a la Tuscany.

The books will take second place to a variety of other tchotchkes: handbags, pretty stationery, cellphone covers, aromatherapy candles and incense sticks, tatty jewellery and assorted bling. The high-end bookstores will display these tastefully, the middle-range bookstore will lay these out in the manner of a Janpath pavement sale, but the effect is the same—to warn the bibliophile to step carefully. There is nothing innocuous about this merchandise; like a virus, it will slowly infect an even otherwise good store, until it has vanquished the books completely.

This is the kind of bookshop most commonly found in the places where new readers come in, lured by the idea of buying books. Often, these readers have had far more exposure to the cinema or to music than they have to reading. You cannot reasonably expect readers to thrive in an environment where most homes have magazines and TV, but no one buys a book in months, where there are few local libraries or good school libraries.

When a seasoned reader steps into the kind of bookstore you find in malls and large markets—the small, independent bookstores cannot afford the rates a Swarovski crystal showroom would pay—they know what to expect. But when a new reader comes in to one of these stores, they will leave with either the junk food of familiarity—popcorn bestsellers, bhelpuri consume-and-throw novels—or a faint sense of having been cheated, even if they can’t name what they’re missing.

Jason Epstein wrote, “A civilization without retail bookstores is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.”

But he was speaking of the kind of bookstore that draws readers back time and time again, such as Ram Advani Booksellers in Lucknow, which furnished generations of historians with an unparalleled education. Ram Guha wrote of this in The Hindu, some years ago: “For the slightly older, ‘going Ganjing’ meant a triple pilgrimage to the Coffee House, the British Library, and Ram Advani.”

In a completely unscientific survey of friends on Twitter, I asked what made a bookshop special. Marryam Reshii spoke of a “book city” like Singapore, with several excellent bookstores, and singled out Kinokuniya’s delights. Harini Calamur brought back memories when she mentioned Lotus in Bandra, situated over a petrol pump.

Half of an entire bookshelf in my house is furnished with recommendations from Virat, Lotus’s manager. When Lotus shut down, our budget for books shrank until we moved disastrously close to The Bookshop in Jorbagh, where KD Singh helped me discover author after author I’d have never encountered otherwise. Many mentioned both of the legendary Shanbaghs—the late TN, whose Strand bookstore in Bombay built readers’ collections and their book memories, and TS, who runs Premier in Bangalore.

As the recommendations and stories came in, I understood why people love certain bookstores, like Giggles in Chennai and can’t accept the ersatz ones we’re offered these days, however many varieties of coffee and pastries they serve. The right owner or manager becomes part of your reading life; Nandita Saikia remembered how Crossword would allow customers to stay on and read, becoming a surrogate library.

The second function of a great bookstore cannot be replicated by a search engine. The books I buy on the Kindle or in other e-book formats reflect my tastes, and how sad it is to be a prisoner of one’s own tastes, however eclectic.

The writer Annie Proulx explains our need for secondhand books, and for bookstores that allow you to explore. “On the jumbly shelves in my house I can find directions for replacing a broken pipe stem, a history of corncribs, a booklet of Spam recipes, a 1925 copy of “Animal Heroes of the Great War” (mostly dogs but some camels); dictionaries of slang, dialect and regional English,” she writes in a New York Times essay.

“This digging involves more than books. I need to know which mushrooms smell like maraschino cherries and which like dead rats, to note that a magpie in flight briefly resembles a wooden spoon, to recognize vertically trapped suppressed lee-wave clouds.”

The bookstores my friends named—Blossoms in Bangalore, Giggles in Chennai, Literati in Goa, Bhartiya Pustakalaya in Jammu, Grantha Mandir in Berhampur—were, to us, places of magic. In our hearts, we readers are secret Amundsens and Norgays, and the reading obsession is nothing less than a desire to experience all of the world, or as much of it as can be contained between the two covers of a book.

The right kind of bookstore tempts you to linger forever–and some do. As Sumant Srivathsan tweeted, “My family would regularly call Landmark in Madras and ask the staff to send me home.”


What happens when you ask a bunch of really nice Twitter people to name their favourite bookshops. From all across the world:

  1. Honoured Twitterlog, could you help share bookshop memories? The best bookshop you remember anywhere in the world? And in India? #bookshops
  2. @nilanjanaroy For a book city (more than a mere store surely) Kinokuniya in S’pore, Bkk, KL, Taipei etc is a browser’s delight
  3. @nilanjanaroy Lotus bookshop in Mumbai, where Virat the book shop manager introduced me to some of the best authors i have read.
  4. @Shirilm it used to be in Bandra, now it has shut down ….@nilanjanaroy
  5. @nilanjanaroy lotus bookstore in bandra, which helped me discover the world & unabridged in chicago,which brought me closer to me 🙂
  6. Ldn had an Amr. bookshop where you could read all day. . Didn’t survive. Left coffee shop/bookshop blueprint behind.@nilanjanaroy
  7. .@nilanjanaroy Strand Bookstall, Fort, Mumbai. Always friendly. Always discounted rates.
  8. @nilanjanaroy London: Books for Cooks (Notting Hill): I have more books than they 😦 But Foyles, Waterstones & many more make up)
  9. @nilanjanaroy Crossword, Pune: Sat down & read almost every afternoon in law school, often used it like a library. They never complained.
  10. @calamur virat is a true “literary filter: for me. He is at crossword ,kemps corner now.@nilanjanaroy
  11. Modern Book Depot, Bhubaneswar. Small, but had or cud get evrythg I wanted growing up 🙂 “@nilanjanaroy: The best#bookshops you remember?”
  12. @nilanjanaroy China & Hong Kong, Iran (Esphahan, Mashad) = nightmares for book lovers. Istanbul & Amsterdam airport has the occasional gem
  13. @nilanjanaroy Also, two footpath sellers, Pune. One who doubled as a vege seller, books smelt of spinach. Both said ‘pay what/when you want’
  14. @nilanjanaroy powells bookshop in Portland. One city block long. Perfect for a rainy city
  15. @nilanjanaroy Is there a hashtag I can follow? For the record, mine is Bahri Sons in Khan Market, New Delhi. 🙂
  16. @nilanjanaroy i loved landmark in Chennai, before it became a confectionary and perfume store that sells some books..
  17. @nilanjanaroy Leakey’s 2nd-hand bookstore in Inverness, Scotland. In an old church, towering shelves stuffed with rare books. Like a dream.
  18. @nilanjanaroy The dusty, olde worlde precincts of Higginbothams, Chennai
  19. @nilanjanaroy Strand, Bombay. It’s sales blessed poor me with riches. Thanks Mr. Shanbag!
  20. @nilanjanaroy Barter books, Alnwick, Northumberland. And, Oxfam charity bookstore, Stockbridge, Edinburgh. Love them both 🙂
  21. @nilanjanaroy Blossoms in Bangalore. Strand Book Festival every year. Odyssey in Hyderabad. Flipkart now 🙂
  22. @nilanjanaroy St Mark’s and Strand, NYC. Foyle’s, London. And, of course, dear departed Lotus in Mumbai
  23. @nilanjanaroy powells bookshop in Portland. One city block long. Perfect for a rainy city
  24. @nilanjanaroy I remember the 1st time I went to Borders in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was huge. Later spent hours reading in one.#bookshops
  25. @nilanjanaroy Manneys in Pune (now its closed),Wheeler on railway stations in India, small tin book shops in Appa Balwant chowk in Pune
  26. @nilanjanaroy Blossoms, Bangalore. Bookworm, Bangalore.
  27. @nilanjanaroy Open Book Market, South Bank, London. Afternoons spent amidst treasures. Got a Penguin Macbeth for Two Shillings and sixpence
  28. @nilanjanaroy The Comix Store in Berlin. Liked so many that I couldn’t buy any #bookshops
  29. @nilanjanaroy Mine was Premier #bookshop in Blr till it shut down, bldg was sold, Shanbag knew what I loved to read – makes a difference.
  30. @nilanjanaroy For sheer atmosphere it’s hard to beat Shakespeare&Co, Paris. Also other Eng bookstores in Latin Qtr, Paris. Some gems there
  31. @Panda_Jay @nilanjanaroy And Modern book depot managed by an extremely nice and intelligent man! Almost a legend here.
  32. @nilanjanaroy Premier in Bangalore. Shanbag uncle. The knack with which he’d direct a minion to the exact pile to pull out the one you want
  33. @nilanjanaroy Then there’s one in Milano, in the golden quadrangle. May be called Rizzoli. Not great for Eng Lan; fab for atmosphere tho
  34. @nilanjanaroy Pageone in the Hong Kong Airport and also the bookstores at Auckland airport
  35. @nilanjanaroy & of course there is the book pallozza i.e#Kikokuniya in Singapore.
  36. @nilanjanaroy Brick and mortar #bookshops confused me earlier and disappoint me now. I prefer the Kindle store/Feedbooks/Gutenberg/Librivox
  37. @nilanjanaroy Totally. Like apna Fact and Fiction/The Bookshop
  38. .@nilanjanaroy ‘Blossoms’ in Bangalore and senapati bapat road Crossword in Pune. Love these places!
  39. @nilanjanaroy Nothing beats browsing in a large store in an English speaking country. Yes. USA is English speaking. For this purpose only
  40. @nilanjanaroy Karen, in Columbus OH, had a first edition of The Great Gatsby. Dr. T. J. Eckleberg’s eyes! She let me borrow it!#bookshops
  41. @nilanjanaroy Oh Entirely! Premier, for ex. had ABSOLUTELY no room to blink, let alone move. We used to wedge ourselves into the odd corner
  42. @nilanjanaroy Bookworm, Church St., Bangalore. IMO, they give better “If you liked book X, you’ll like book Y” recommendations than Amazon.
  43. @nilanjanaroy Hatchards is owned by Waterstones and Foyles is now a small chain. So two of my three are technically chains :-/
  44. @nilanjanaroy yes! case in point: Dasgupta’s Calcutta 🙂 Also love Changing Hands, a second hand bookstore in Tempe, Arizona.
  45. @nilanjanaroy My best #bookshops memory: Grantha Mandir, Berhampur, Odisha thru which I first read many world classics (in Odia though)
  46. @nilanjanaroy ofcourse! And MayDay in Delhi also organizes book reading groups which are really nice.
  47. @nilanjanaroy I promise this is the last one. Promise: SanFransisco Bookstore on rue M. le Prince. As much for the funkiness as road name
  48. @nilanjanaroy gangarams book paradise, bangalore oldest n d best!!!!!! Shop ever
  49. @SanSip @nilanjanaroy Blossom, Strand, the dear departed Premier in B’lore. From an earlier time, the late great Smokers’ Corner in B’bay.
  50. @nilanjanaroy Mine was Premier #bookshop in Blr till it shut down, bldg was sold, Shanbag knew what I loved to read – makes a difference.
  51. @nilanjanaroy My best #bookshops memory: Grantha Mandir, Berhampur, Odisha thru which I first read many world classics (in Odia though)
  52. @nilanjanaroy Book Culture and Strand Bookstore in NYC. Midlands and Bahrisons in Delhi.
  53. @nilanjanaroy Midland Booksellers in Green Park, Delhi for their 30% discount throughout the year! .
  54. @aayushsoni @nilanjanaroy Judd Books in London is great for academic titles.
  55. @nilanjanaroy Crossword is my fav chain… may be more coz of the bong factor.
  56. @nilanjanaroy – Largely yes, but bkshop shld not be remotely located, don’t mind it small and overcrwd with books. Now I’m an online shopper
  57. @nilanjanaroy depends on the shop. Knowledgeable owners help, but being left alone to read matters more to me. #bookshops
  58. @nilanjanaroy the inlvmn of the owner,creates the experience at the bookshop & impart “soul”.for all else there is amazon.com
  59. @nilanjanaroy my family would regularly call the original Landmark #bookshop in Madras and ask the staff to please send me home.






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