Physical bookstores in India – Who? Where? And ten reasons why.

Bookstores in India

Contributor: Chetan Mahajan

If reading is a religion, then a physical bookstore in India is the temple. Bookstores offer beauty, fragrance, human relationships, deep spirituality, and an incredible sense of possibility. In comparison, buying books online is a recorded sermon delivered by a robot.

We at the Himalayan Writing Retreat support physical bookstores. We do this because we love them. Because we think life would be incomplete without them. We’re seeking the help of like-minded folks to help us put together a list of the stores we love.  

Please support the physical bookstores in India by helping us profile them. How you can do this is explained at the bottom of this page, and also in the Table of Contents.

In today's world of ubiquitous hyper-activism, physical bookstores top our list of causes worth fighting for.

Why should you fight for bookstores in India? 

Don't fight for them all - just for those two (or ten) stores you love. That's reason #1 - we love them. And there are many rational reasons too.

  • Books are too important for an algorithm to choose.

As we grow, we are shaped by the places we live in, and the people we hang out with. Many of these places and people are not physical – they come from the worlds we inhabit as readers. These are often figments of other people's imaginations or parts of other people's lives. But they enrich us, teach us, and expand our hearts and minds.

Those unreal people can matter as much as the real ones. Sometimes more. Ayn Rand and “Absolute” giants like Howard Roark made a huge impression on a very young me. Then books like “The Unbearable Lightness of being” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” helped as antidotes to Ayn Rands' thoughts, and I realized how out of touch with reality John Galt was. In that process, I grew.

Books changed me. They made me discover myself. And I continue to learn, grow and evolve by reading books. Such a critical influence cannot be constrained or limited by money. It is the single biggest investment we make in our lives.

We cannot allow an internet algorithm to decide what we read. These choices have to be educated. Human choices are made after conversations and recommendations from well-read, empathetic people. A physical bookstore is full of the humanity missing in an algorithm.

Besides, I really don’t want to buy my books from someone who is suing NASA.

  • We can discover new worlds at bookstores. The right to choose. The possibilities.

In a bookstore, one can truly browse. Sample. Read.

A few years ago, I visited the Blossoms bookstore on a visit to Bangalore. It was fabled and I had heard much about it. We – a family of four including two little children walked into the store. The bookstore was a wonderland of books, a complete joy to explore. Three hours later we were still there. My wife and I disappeared in the aisles loaded with genres that interested us. The kids spent hours reading comics and kids’ books and finding their own wonder.

Vandita discovered “The Search Warrant” by Patrick Modiano. I discovered the books of Nadine Gordimer. And so much more. We left with two hefty bags full of books, the joy of an afternoon well spent, and the anticipation of meeting the many new friends we brought home in the pages we were carrying.

It was browsing a bookstore that I found “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, a book I practically sleep with. And many others that I’ve loved.

Going to a bookstore is like investing in discovering new voices that talk to us. Just like you try new things in life – foods, and experiences, books are amongst the most precious things we can invest in.

  • Online buying is closed and directed

In online shopping, you only find what you’re looking for. At best it will be something very close to your search. In a bookstore, on the other hand, you’re surrounded by new thoughts and ideas in the form of books. Something completely off your radar could catch your eye and pull you in.

“But if I can find a date on Tinder or a life-partner on shaadi.com, then why not buy a book online too?” you ask.

When you look for a date on Tinder, you want to go geographically wider, but psychologically narrower. Tinder hooks you up with “Compatible” people and you see more of the same kind of date, even if they live far away. Besides, when you’re on Tinder, you want a few good fits, while on Shaadi.com you want just the one (hopefully).

Unfortunately, Flipkart & Amazon do the same thing for you and the books you read.

That’s not what you want with books. With books, you want to look wider, across genres. You can be Magellan all on your own, and discover new worlds. That doesn’t happen on a screen.

Actual picture from 'Just Books', a bookshop in Haldwani

Bookstore

Actual picture from 'Just Books', a bookshop in Haldwani

  • Book purchases are emotional. Not rational

When you buy a book, it is a fundamentally different process from buying, say, a vacuum cleaner. When you buy a book, you want to hold it, heft it in your hands, feel the paper, see the cover and read the inside of the flap. When I see someone open a book, close their eyes, and inhale the fragrance of a new book, I see love. It is a personal, emotional experience.

By contrast, most other purchases are rational. There is little or no emotion involved. You look at the specs, compare prices, and buy. Take our Vacuum Cleaner example. These are bought using a rational process. If you start holding a vacuum cleaner closely and inhaling it deeply, people will look at you funny. And you’ll probably need some Allegra.

That deep emotional connection, that process of finding the right book, is highly compromised in online shopping. You’re treating an emotional decision like a purely rational one.

Visiting a bookstore is like going on a walk in a beautiful forest, while online shopping is like looking at the flat 2 dimensional pictures of that walk in a plastic album.

  • It’s not the money, stupid.

The biggest investment in a book isn’t the money you spend on it, but the time you spend with it. An average book costs 2-3 hundred rupees.  But if you spend five hours reading it, clearly that’s worth a lot more.

So, skimping on the experience, and buying books in a directed closed loop is a bad investment decision for your time.

  • Packaging

For some reason, the folks at e-commerce companies seem to think books are breakable. I’ve often seen books delivered in bubble wrap, inside large cardboard boxes. In the best-case scenario, they’re delivered in single-use plastic packaging.  You, gentle reader, bear the guilt of the unnecessary mountain of plastic and cardboard. You’ve just added to the world’s trash with your order, even if the book you ordered was about turtles suffocating on plastic.

Bookstores in India and elsewhere are guilt-free. When you leave a bookstore, you can take books in your own bag, buy a cloth bag, or use a recyclable bag. It’s simple, clean, and eco-friendly. Bookstores offer the same product – that book about turtles and plastic - without the packaging or the guilt. 

Indie stores in the US have started a #boxedout campaign raising this as one of the critical issues with Amazon.

Sharing some images of the #BoxedOut Campaign | IndieBound.org with you. 

All images are copyright of #BoxedOut Campaign | IndieBound.org
  • This change is NOT for the best – Unless you’re Jeff Bezos

It’s all for the best!” I hear people say when they talk about change.

Wrong.

Some things are too important and cannot go down into the “All for the best” bucket of fatalism. It is your choice to not accept the change. Your choice to not go with the flow.

While I do agree that online stores offer a few benefits, the value of a physical bookstore is way too high to be compromised. They’re too precious, and we cannot allow their demise.

I refuse to accept a future without bookstores - not for me, not for my kids. You can too. 

There are many people worldwide who are fighting the good fight and trying to keep bookstores alive. The US has rallied together and come up in arms against Amazon. The movement visible in the US is led by the American Booksellers Association (https://www.bookweb.org/ ) and IndieBound.org.

They have organized themselves, created campaigns such as the boxed-out campaign referred to above, and they seem to have changed things. The number of indie bookstores in the US has continued to rise over the past ten years, even though the total volume of business has fallen. (Source)

What has already been done for bookstores in India?

Bookstores in India haven’t organized themselves and led this charge on the same scale, although there has been an effort like this one. Some stores have innovated and devised new ways to weather the dual storm of online + Covid, as explained here.

Why do we need Bookstores in India even more?

India is doubly vulnerable because we don’t have public libraries, which are a beautiful asset and aspect of public life in many western countries. The US alone has 17,000 public libraries funded by taxpayers' money.  In the absence of public libraries, bookstores become proxy libraries. That makes it even more important that independent bookstores thrive and grow in India.

Why Covid makes it more urgent?

Physical lockdowns have hurt bookstores. The virus has further weakened bookstores and increased our dependence on Amazon, Flipkart, and Kindle.

No wonder Jeff Bezos took his space trip in 2021. And after that, audaciously said, “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this.”

What can YOU do for bookstores in India?

As you read this, you’re probably fondly remembering your own bookstore experiences. But nostalgia doesn’t change things. Action does. Here are three things you can do in this fight for the underdog:

  1. First Action

Go out and visit your bookstore, and buy some books from there instead of online. The conscious choice of each individual can make a difference. Where you buy your next book matters more than you think.

  1. Second Action

Write out a profile of your favourite bookstore, and share that with us. That will help us drive even more traffic to that store. For this, do the following:

Type the name of the store in the search bar at the top of this page (be sure to spell it right).

If it shows up on our database, please read the write-up and let us know if there are any updates. You can contact us here.

If it doesn’t show up, please tell us which store you want to cover by filling out this form. We’ll ensure nobody else is already covering it, and give you the thumbs-up. We’ll also help you with some structure and guidance.

Once finished and edited, we will publish the bookstore profile you write for us on our website, with your name on it.

  1. Third Action

Please share this article on Social media. Encourage other book lovers to do 1 & 2 above.

Proud to #StepUp4Bookstores with HimalayanWritingRetreat. I pledge to buy books only from a bookstore & add my voice to the initiative. Have you added yours? #VisitABookstore  #IndependentBookStores #HWROnline #Bookstores

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