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Are bookstores becoming a thing of the past?

By December 12, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu – LITERARY REVIEW    –    Shelley Walia

What can compare to books piled all over in heaps, a part of daily life and conversations

I don’t care for bookstores any more. I have my reading agenda and a bookstore can’t cater to my needs,” said a friend at a recent discussion on fast-disappearing bookshops. He continued: “Browsing was fun when you were looking for books to read. But now I am very clear about what I have to read.”

As this conversation would suggest, bookstores, like so many other things, are becoming a thing of the past, swallowed by online behemoths like Amazon. This is not to say that the species that loves to visit a bookstore, browse and carry home books with a sense of jouissance is extinct.

For every story of a bookshop shutting down, there is a counter-narrative of a new one coming up or an old one being refurbished. Take the example of the legendary Kepler’s near San Francisco. Founded in 1955, it brought about the paperback revolution by selling them at 30 cents each, which enabled a democratic readership.

To hold, to cherish

Icons of the Beat generation like Jack Kerouac, and activist-singers like Joan Baez used to once gather there to debate liberalism, or the music of protest, or social justice. But even these hallowed premises could not survive the onslaught of the online marketplace: Kepler’s had to shut shop in 2005 as sales dropped precipitously and rents soared. But the community rallied, holding funding drives and soliciting neighbours with deep pockets to raise the money to reopen the store. Today, it is once again a bustling place, serving as a cultural hub for a wide readership, including students and faculty of Stanford, located next door. Such is the power of the community.

Some other bookshops, like Cody’s Books in Berkeley, have not been so lucky. Famous for fighting censorship and providing a safe refuge for anti-Vietnam War protesters through the 1960s and 70s, Cody’s shut down permanently in 2008.

On the other hand, City Lights in San Francisco, founded in 1953 by poet and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, is still thriving.

No pleasure can compare with that of a good bookshop. My best memories are of the many afternoons I’ve spent in the bookshops of Khan Market, in the second-hand treasure trove of Calcutta’s College street, or walking in the rain to Minerva on the Shimla mall in the 60s to buy books with the money sent by my father as birthday gift. Those memories have an aura made up of the faint smell of print, the hustle and bustle of people milling around bookstores and an occasional chat with the shop-owner.

None of this can be found on Amazon, which is impersonal, cold, distant and purely commercial.

At the close of yet another year, I am reminded of all the places from where I bought certain books, their value both sentimental and antiquarian, and the charm of building up a collection bit by bit over the years. Walter Benjamin writes in his essay, ‘Unpacking My Library’: “The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order”. Constantly on the move, he would keep packing and unpacking his huge collection.

Benjamin captures the chaos associated equally with books and memories. When my books lie all over my study in a disorderly heap, they somehow feel closer and dearer, a part of daily conversations, than when they are stacked neatly in shelves.

Once put in a row, they seem to gaze lifelessly back at unmoved visitors till some avid reader pulls one out to caress it, infusing it momentarily with life. How do you have such experiences if all your books are stored on Kindle?

The writer is Professor Emeritus and Fellow, Panjab University.

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