City Hangout – Lonely Planet Store, Jackson Books, Paharganj
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
“As well as Indian staples, you’ll find everything, from banana pancakes to pizzas, Mexican wraps and Israeli falafel… all of which can taste remarkably similar to the Indian staples. Come here for low prices and the travellers’ hubbub rather than gourmet dining” – this is the Lonely Planet India (2013 edition) introduction to Paharganj. Delhi’s hotel district used to teem with foreign travellers, with almost each of them armed with a copy of Lonely Planet (LP). Indeed, the corner bookshelf in any self-respecting Paharganj café stocked at least a couple of these much thumbed LPs.
And then the coronavirus arrived early last year. As the new variant Omicron spreads worldwide, Paharganj’s backpackers are no more than a dream remembered. But one place here embodies the spirit of that bygone time of international wanderlust. Jackson Books is still stocked with hundreds of used (and new) LPs.
A tiny makeshift alcove by the roadside, the store has an extensive collection of novels in several European languages. But it is the LPs that stand out with their distinctive blue spines. Stacked across the shop’s many shelves, the paperback guidebooks are in many languages, and on many countries – more than 200 destinations, says bookseller Deepak Kumar Dilani. Flipping through the used editions is like travelling with their previous owners. Tips are highlighted, recommendations are underlined. A page in the richly annotated Lonely Planet Guatemala is scrawled with blue hearts.
In the BC (before Covid) era, the bookstore sold three to four LPs daily to foreign travellers, but only three managed to move out since the pandemic began. The third left the shelves just this afternoon – it was LP India. “The buyer was an Indian… she said she was interested in travelling.”
Founded in 1996, the shop itself has become a lonely planet. Many of Paharganj’s other used bookstores shut down long before the pandemic, but a determined Jackson is staying on despite the odds. “Foreigners were my prime customers,” notes Mr Dilani. The accents of those foreigners – he points out amusedly – played a vital role in corrupting the bookstore’s original name, from Jai Kishen (owner’s late father) to Jackson.
While posing for a portrait with his vast collection of travel books, Mr Dilani is puzzled that Lonely Planet India has never listed his bookstore on its Paharganj page.
He now takes out from the attic upstairs a fat copy of the equally prestigious Rough Guide to India, and turns to page 117 (he remembers the page number by heart). It says, “Jackson: Paharganj’s best address for secondhand books.”
Lonely is the planet
Lonely Planet people of Paharganj, of the pre-corona era