Bookstores, they say, are under tremendous pressure because of decreasing footfalls, and on top of that, these days we have a NO ENTRY placard posted outside. I don’t think there is any other retail space on the planet that could carry such an attitude and still survive. Thanks to the pesky nature of booklovers, even COVID can’t keep them from visiting us, let alone the placard outside the store. But as I mentioned, it’s true for booklovers, who will battle weather and fate to visit shelves lined with the spines of new books. The people reading this may need a little bit more convincing.
Our bookstore has a friend called Pradhan. A fine gentleman, he visits the bookstore every now and then to browse and pull out esoteric books. Sometimes these are niche titles; who is interested in a book on Sumerian priests? Sometimes, as a bookseller, even I wonder why I got those books in the first place. He calmly browses for about an hour, left alone to peruse every title. After having delved into the shelves to his heart’s desire, he neatly brings a stack of about ten books to the counter and asks me to ring them up. I tell him the total bill amount which he politely pays, thanks me, and leaves with three bulging paper packets.
I have grown up in the company of lot of Pradhans, who love to visit and browse quietly for hours, lost amongst well curated collection, and the books which talk only to them. Seldom do two Pradhans have a similar stack of books in their arms, but God bless a bookstore where two Pradhans pick out the same book which they intend to read. It could be the beginning of a delightful conversation over a cup of tea, or sometimes, for all I know, a profound lifetime of togetherness. Do you recall your inner Pradhan? Distantly? Remotely?
Once, bookstores were buzzing with visits from these Pradhans. Over the years, online mechanical giants are slowly taking away these associations. The lifetime of togetherness within a bookshop, the private reflections near a bundle of books, the value of meeting a stranger, who is standing in front of the same shelf and perhaps will reach for the same book as you, aren’t these moments that matter? Bookstores keep us far from the madding crowd, inside cozy caverns, where lie personal worlds full of dreams and musings, wonder and joy. Our hope is to slowly make space for this quiet beauty again, in the digitally drowned world. Booksellers earlier used to check the viability of a visiting customer in terms of their purchasing prowess, or, at least their interest in books. Nowadays, we check temperature and pulse, and sanitize hands too. That NO ENTRY placard then, is immaterial to you, my dear Pradhan. The bookstore yearns for your visit as much as you miss visiting it.