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Latest book haven in town

Last updated: 19 March, 2011
Pradeep Sebastian 18:34 IST

The browsers ecstasy

With more bookstores closing down than opening, its a sweet surprise to find a new independent bookstore springing up in Bangalore.

Novel store Bookstop! owners with Ramachandra Guha during its opening.  PHOTO BY M R RAVISHANKARBookstop! in Koramangala is owned and run by Jayanti and Venkat, two bibliophiles adventurous and gutsy, and passionate enough to put their faith in the printed word and its readers. Ramachandra Guha inaugurated the store a few weeks ago and noticed with relief that Bookstop! was strictly books, no chainstore merchandising, and just earnest browsers. Bookstop! is a modest-sized, cozy bookshop and it aims to remain this way. Bangalore, at last, has what it had always lacked: a community bookstore.

“Sometimes I honestly feel like the reincarnation of the iconic Premier Bookshop!” exclaimed Jayanti once to me. Bookstop offers many of the pleasures of that once beloved bookshop, minus its charming chaos, which quite honestly, had got out of hand.

Browsing wasn’t possible anymore if you’ll recall, while Bookstop! makes this familiar bibliophile-pleasure seductive again. It’s telling that Bookstop! is not another used bookstore (which there is more of in Bangalore suddenly than ever before) which are relatively simpler to start-up, and involves fewer risks. Bookstop! is stocked with not just new books but carefully handpicked titles that lean towards the literary more than the popular.

But can an independent bookshop like this one survive and do well when even chain bookstores are closing? Chain stores in India show no signs of winding down, but the story is very different elsewhere. Borders declared bankruptcy recently, and have begun to wind down operations, store by store, location by location. Barnes and Noble for now remains open, but they have begun to expand their e-book retailing. What does this mean for the independently owned bookstores? That it’s a sign for them to come back (they were the first to be affected and began shutting down over the last 10 years), or to stay further away from the book business?

With cautious optimism I’ve heard some independent booksellers say that it means there is a renewed place for them now; most, though, feel it changes nothing for the local bookstore — the struggle to keep it afloat simply goes on. What, though, could those few booksellers who see this as a positive trend for the small bookstore have in mind?

I think this was best answered by a writer who has given this much thought, Edward McClelland (author of Young Mr Obama: The Making of a Black President) writing recently in Salon: “Even with Borders disappearing, the independents will still have to face competition from the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, not to mention Amazon.

But as paper books become a niche product, niche retailers will be the best place to buy and sell them. Book lovers will always want a place to gather and hear recommendations from a bookseller who knows their reading habits, and their community. Borders belonged to an era when book retailing was a big enough business to monopolise. Now that there’s no money in it anymore, we may have to go back to shopping for books in stores that let dogs wander through the stacks, and don’t even serve coffee.”

I don’t know if Jayanti and Venkat — animal lovers both — will let dogs and cats wander through the stacks, but you can get yourself a decent cup of coffee inside the store, nominally priced, that you can sip and browse with, or take out into their tiny shop veranda to sit and chat, or watch the street.

Coming back to what McClelland observes so insightfully: as the printed book itself becomes a niche pleasure, seekers of the printed book will become a niche constituency and it will be those passionately and idiosyncratically curated walls of books in such community bookstores that will serve their needs more knowledgeably, accurately and with easy camaraderie.

Each time I visited Bookstop! (which has become rather often) I saw patrons either deep in conversation with Jayanti about books or browsing intently. They have no plans to go online because — like all good independent bookshops — they want to see the people they are selling books to. The couple has plans to soon make this even more of a speciality bookstore by devoting shelves to author-signed copies, out-of-print editions, books about books, and showcase more titles from smaller, independent publishers.

What gave them the business confidence that Bookstop! will succeed when other larger chain bookstores have failed? Venkat said he had faith in Jayanti’s vision for the bookshop as also a community — not only commercial — bookstore. When she once expressed doubts about what they were doing, he had reminded her: “it will be a success because you are passionate about books, because you love talking about books to others, because you are not doing this like a business person, so it will have a different atmosphere, a different energy that will drive it.”

The fate of Bookstop! could answer for us what life will be like for Indian independent bookshops after e-books and e-readers. Healthy and vibrant and fecund, we hope. For what is at stake here with their flourishing or disappearing is nothing less than the fate of the printed book in India.

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