Feature – My Dad's Bookshop, My Dad's Customers

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This is that bookshop

An insider’s gossip on Delhi’s most eclectic bookstore.

[Text by Jairaj Singh; picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The author whose father runs this little bookshop, tucked somewhere in south Delhi, doesn’t wish the store to be named. Shh, here’s a hint: His father has been profiled by The Delhi Walla.

When I was in school a classmate once asked me what my father did for a living. I told him he worked in a bookshop. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Can he afford to send you to school? All that stationary and textbook stuff must amount to a pittance.’ It was clear to me that my classmate had never seen the inside of a bookshop, and would probably never need to, so I laughed and let it be. But it made me think: Do people read? But surely they did? After all, it was true that my father could afford to send me to a private school

When I left school, I encountered two kinds of reactions when I told people that my father owned a bookshop. One sort would bluntly ask if they would get a discount the next time they went visiting. The second—and this was the slightly older lot—would orgasm on the idea: ‘Oh, how lovely. Imagine sitting in a bookshop and reading all you want!’

I couldn’t tell the first group that it wasn’t my business to get them a discount; nor could I break the hearts of the second by telling them that their idea of owning a bookshop was as romantic as reading a book on a date. (I did that once. The book wasn’t the only thing that ended.) But these reactions did seem to suggest that people wanted to read. Which is, all told, a good thing—it pays. In my case, literally.

To understand life in a bookstore, or rather how people behave in a bookstore, you have to understand my father first. My father, over the years, has become a quieter man. There are days when he can even be alarmingly gentle. He has been sitting on one squeaky chair for a bit longer than two decades, manning the place all by himself, with occasional help from an uncle. He knows his books because he handpicks them. Sometimes he has to put them on the floor because they don’t fit on the bookshelves. It’s a very small store.

He looks tired most of the time, my father. Sometimes even a bit broken— when India plays the cricket world cup, for instance, and sales hit an iceberg. On such days, he will do unpredictable things, and you could be forgiven for calling him eccentric, as one blogger did after he was denied a discount and told to handle the books with care. The blogger went on to blame my father for hindering his literary ambitions. As far as I know, looking is never a problem. But you really can’t expect the store-owner to always smile as he watches you break the spine of his books—especially if he has grown up reading and studying science.

For a huge number of people the bookshop is not ideally their restroom of learning, but a place where they contest it. The brighter ones scrape through, but not before they have made absolute fools of themselves in front of a silent, bespectacled spectator—the bookseller.

A good number of frighteningly sophisticated people will come to the shop wanting to know only the latest bestseller list. I suppose it works well on the late-evening cocktail-party circuit when an intellectual discussion begins and all the collar-buttons unbutton. One of the hottest bestsellers that the bookstore has never sold a single copy of is Salman Rushdie’s fatwa-ridden Satanic Verses. Over the years, despite its damned and banned content, people continue to check if the book can be ordered or found. There’s a lady who has been doing this once every two years since she was first told it wasn’t possible, in 1989. She looks disappointed each time. Requests for books have also got vaguer over the years and perhaps less amusing.

‘Would you have Arundhati Roy’s other novel?’ a customer asks.

‘I am afraid we aren’t aware of another novel.’

‘Look, are you sure?’

‘Yes sir. Unless you meant another published work of hers?’

‘I know my books well. It’s a rare book and I’ve seen it in better shops than yours.’

‘Okay, if you ever spot it again, do let us know.’

Sometimes people come in not knowing the name of the book—which is understandable. But then they offer clues like, ‘it’s a big black book’, or ‘it’s a picture book’, or ‘the writer is in the Bush administration’, or ‘we read the review last Sunday,’ or even ‘he comes on television a lot, you know’.

In summer, the book-business pundits will tell you, every cultured resident of Delhi who reads, or at least buys, books migrates to cooler places. In the air- conditioned bookstore that sits across a movie hall, however, there is no respite.

All sorts of people enter it, usually in a group, simply to escape the heat while they wait for the booking office to open. It is easy to spot such a group – they walk in discussing some completely unliterary subject. Most turn their backs on the pay counter straightaway, but occasionally one of them might pull out a book in order to pretend interest. Someone from the group will then feel impelled to disclose how he or she felt ‘spiritually uplifted’ after reading a particular book. The book must then be brought down from the shelf.

‘Oh it’s a must read. I love books. It’s a wonder I don’t need glasses yet…’

The cover of the book in hand is scrutinized for a good four seconds, then an involuntary thumb flips through all the leaves of the book. After this has been done thrice or more, the price is finally asked. ‘Oh that’s just too expensive,’ is the usual response and the book is jammed back into its original place after a few unsuccessful attempts, damaging the cover in the process. The group now flits from one section to another till the wait is over: through the glass door they’ve been keeping track of when the queue starts forming outside the cinema hall.

Sometimes people spend hours in a bookshop just hanging around, waiting for someone to ask for a book, which is a cue for them to voice their opinion of the book before resuming their endless and usually futile book search. They are the aimless, forgotten professorial sorts, ready to demonstrate great enthusiasm about rediscovering forgotten paragraphs in books they read a long time ago.

They can turn nasty when you ask them what exactly they are looking for, even though they have been through every shelf in the shop over and over again. On an average day it is surprising how many flustered-looking aunts walk in and want to find a book for their thirteen-year-old nieces. They will spend many minutes talking about the prodigy’s extroverted nature, her love of dance and her top rank in class. They will then want suggestions on which book they should pick up as a birthday present. Fortunately, this isn’t a tough call in our Harry Potter times.

Sometimes fellows just barge in—and you don’t even have to look up to decide if they are potential customers, you can tell what they are like by just hearing them. They will want to know if you have books on computer engineering or books on
business strategies and sometimes even on aerodynamics and horse breeding. You can’t always tell that they aren’t potential buyers, of course, but most are just passers-by who feel like dropping in and saying, ‘Hey everyone, I have a hobby.’

Then there are those who will want to browse through all the self-help titles and fill their collection. Some are very persistent; they have long lists of titles recommended by their mentors. On rough days they are eventually pointed to the philosophy section so they can sort themselves out.

Once a strange bloke came rushing in to ask my father where he bought the shirt he was wearing. My father said he had bought it in a store that was next to the nearby burger outlet. The man rushed out at the same speed. Everyone in the shop looked nonplussed; I heard my father mumble that he had bought the shirt some ten years ago.

As opposed to a shoe shop or a hardware store, the owner and the staff of a bookstore need heavy-duty negotiating and people skills to deal with the number of people coming in with strange requests. It isn’t easy telling a customer repeatedly that he can’t exchange books after keeping them at home for a week, or that books can’t be offered at fifty per cent discount during Diwali week or free on World Literacy Day. Such customers are tough, they will plead, argue, whine, shout and sometimes even pick a fight.

A few months back, a well-known actress came to the shop and wanted to pick up a pile of books for charity. After she had collected a whole lot, she got into an argument over how she should get them free because she was doing it for a good cause. She even reminded everyone who she was. People hoped she was kidding.

I suppose a bookshop is a great place to be spotted in if you are a celebrity. It’s good to be remembered, and to remind the everyday world that not only are you a person of beauty, fame and wealth but that you are also staggeringly intellectual. Many famous types walk in, throwing their voice as well as their weight around so that everyone notices. Then they will pretend bafflement at being noticed and gaped at. Thereafter they will try to beat a lucky gaper at an eye duel.

Touché! Once the gaper looks suitably embarrassed and defeated, they will smile. This done, they will talk about their favourite authors and books, expecting the owner and staff to be awestruck and produce piles of books for them. Nine times out of ten the rich and famous end up buying nothing.

So: do people read? I still don’t know. When someone asks, expecting me to know—because my father owns a bookshop, you see—I say yes, of course, people read. That’s a bit of fact, a bit of fiction.

[This piece had earlier appeared in First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing 4]