Often described as man’s best friends and most wonderful weapons, books are invaluable even in a fast-paced world.
Research shows that the lockdowns across the globe during the pandemic have generally led to a ‘slowing down’ of our pace, which in turn has led to an increase in the sale of books. As Cicero remarked, ‘A room without a book is like a body without a soul.’
Good old bookshops are soulful. These special places do much more than just selling books. They have been melting-pots of cultures and ideas. They can also float or sink a bestseller. Their role in our culture, both real and fictional, is truly marvellous.
Asne Seierstad immortalised Sultan Khan, the protagonist in her The Bookseller of Kabul, using his shop as the window to a country torn by cruel regimes and the Taliban. The famous TV series Black Books revolved around a bookshop. As in countless Hollywood films, the protagonists found love in a bookstore in the film Notting Hill. The bookshop Flourish & Blotts in Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley is simply magical.
Books and bookshops have shaped Indian history, and many revolutionary ideas took wing at bookshops and spread from there. Such was the power of the written word that the Vernacular Press Act in the 19th century had to be passed as a tool to curb freedom struggle and break unity in the country.Ironically, Udham Singh would hide his weapon in a book to avenge the Amritsar massacre.
With their history and importance, bookshops are remarkable places. Within the chaos, there is always a studied calm and the wonderful aroma of freshly printed paper. Within the confines of a single store, one can possibly delve into philosophy, fiction, politics, history.... the list is endless. Not to forget the useful suggestions given by the booksellers, always willing to help and recommend books based on their interactions with their patrons.
Online buying and selling of books has had a major financial implication for these bookshops. A number of them have had to reinvent ways to stay relevant. Some of them, for instance Bahrisons and Faqir Chand in Delhi, are almost as old as independent India. The famous Maria Brothers on Mall Road, Shimla, still preserves history, dealing in antique and rare books. Select Bookshop in Bengaluru makes it a point to get each book signed by their 95-year-old owner, with a suitable quotation always.
No other place offers the promise that a bookshop holds. As times change, how we perceive these places changes, too. In the metaphorical epic of bookshops, a new chapter is being written, with the arrival of online shops and soft copies of books.
How the rest of this book completes itself is yet to be seen. However, the readers of books will undoubtedly have a major role to play in this epic.