BENGALURU: I have been fortunate to have travelled around the world and visited some of the most stunning bookstores – big and small; old and new; chain and independent; rare and antiquarian; mobile and personal; in cities and villages. I have seen the world through books and learnt about cultures from bookstores.
Independent bookstores are central to a thriving local community and are also one of the last truly democratic institutions that are free for all. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “A bookstore is one of the only pieces of physical evidence we have that people are still thinking.” Going by the dwindling number of bookstores, it appears we’re thinking less.
In the US alone, the number of independent bookstores has shrunk from 5,500 in 1995 to 1,700 in 2021. Hence bookstores hold a special place in my heart, and to save them has become a personal mission for me. Some of my favourite books are true stories of bookstores and two that top my list are on bookstores in Afghanistan and New Zealand. The Bookseller in Kabul by Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, published in 2011, was not just a bestseller but also deeply embedded in controversy.
Seierstad entered Afghanistan two weeks after the September 11 attacks and followed the Northern Alliance into Kabul where she spent three months. Disguising herself by wearing a burka, she lived with a bookseller and his family in Kabul which provided her with a unique opportunity to describe life as ordinary Afghan citizens saw it. The Bookseller at the End of the World by Ruth Shaw is a rich, immersive, funny and heartbreaking memoir of the charming bookseller who runs two tiny bookshops in the remote village of Manapouri in Fiordland, in the deep south of New Zealand.
A longstanding item on my literary bucket list was the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Before I visited this bookstore in September 2022, I read the memoir Time Was Soft There: a Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Canadian reporter Jeremy Mercer. This is a fascinating book on how Mercer as a wandering reporter entered a little bookstore called Shakespeare and Company, bought a book, and after the staff invited him up for tea, changed his life forever. Within weeks he was living above the store, working for the proprietor, George Whitman, patron saint of the city’s down-and-out writers, and immersing himself in the love affairs and low-down watering holes of the shop’s makeshift staff. Time Was Soft There is the story of a journey down a literary rabbit hole in the shadow of Notre Dame, to a place where a hidden bohemia still thrives.
Writer/artist and Reader’s Digest cartoonist Bob Eckstein’s wonderful homage to bookstores that he calls “temples of thought”, Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores is full of sweet, funny, and poignant stories. I have both the postcards and the book as a reminder of what is essential in our lives.
Two of my current favourites are In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch and The Last Bookseller by Gary Goodman. As an experienced bookseller and reader, Jeff has written an essential book on an institution that is central to a literate society. The Last Bookseller by Gary Goodman is a desperate yet hilarious account of a career as a used and rare book dealer in Minnesota. Finally, I am hoping to see a book about a bookstore from India.
The internet has changed the book business forever but preserving the printed word along with the physical space of a bookstore is of great significance. It is where dialogue and undivided attention are privileged and where imagination has space to meander. My dream is to own a bookstore and for now, I am just living my dream through these books.