Browsing Bookstores Is A Childhood Pleasure That I No Longer Find, But Why Is This So?

Posted: April 19, 2018

Chain bookstores no longer store the good books and it’s no longer fun to browse in them, but what is the real reason? A lifelong reader muses.

The other day, a friend was cribbing about her frustrating experience at a large chain-format book store. There were hardly any books by the sublimely talented Neil Gaiman, she complained. How can a bookstore worth its salt not stock Gaiman? The staff was clueless when she asked about the books she was looking for. And- this was her biggest peeve – the store had more space and shelves dedicated to selling branded tiffin boxes and crayons and battery-operated toys and CHOCOLATES! And they call themselves a bookstore, she sniffed.

Her rant was perfectly valid. I myself had waxed eloquently on this topic frequently enough. But a couple of years ago, as I browsed in the Crossword store less than a mile away from my home (that’s the advantage of a chain of stores!), it hit me that the criticism, while valid, was not really justified. The chain store booksellers like Crossword have been put out of the joint by readers themselves.

Humour my nostalgia

To explain what I say, I will need to take you back in time to my school days. As a voracious reader, the library was my go-to place for books. We were not a book buying family despite all of us being avid readers, mostly because books were expensive and libraries made more sense.

I must have been five years old when I first accompanied my mother to the library. I didn’t issue books of course- I was too young for that- but the library was still Someplace Special. The rows upon rows of books, shelved from floor to ceiling seemed to my childish eyes like trees in a dense forest- tall, sturdy, safe. And so I grew to love books and love the library.

The only fly in the ointment was that the library did not have all the books I wanted to read. There were several Enid Blyton books, but not her most known Famous Fives. There were Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, but not enough Three Investigators. There were zero Babysitters Club books.

As I grew up to be a teen, the gaps in the library became even more obvious- where were the new, exciting books like Sweet Dreams (does anyone remember them?) and River Heights? Stepping gamely into the breach was the Crossword store at Haji Ali. There were no independent bookstores near my home- I didn’t even know such a thing existed (except for the legendary Strand which was at the far end of town).

So a visit to Crossword was a dream come true. I still remember my first time there. I had accompanied a friend whose parents were very loose with the purse strings when it came to book buying, and hence, she knew bookstores and what one does there. She introduced me to the pleasures of browsing. I skimmed through the shelves, plucking up books at will, undisturbed by anyone. My eyes were wide with wonder as they took in stack after stack of glorious, brightly-coloured, crisp new books (as against the bound, faceless, yellowed books in the library). And finally, after hours of blissful browsing, I bought two teen romances and walked away in a happy haze, clutching my precious bag.

Of course, the Haji Ali store shut in a few years and reopened in a huge new avataar at Kemps Corner. I remember being spellbound at the sheer expanse of floor space in that store. There was a whole separate children’s section that hypnotised me with the rows of graceful Puffin Classics. I chanced upon my favourite author here- I mean, I saw her works here for the first time. It was difficult to resist temptation when faced by it in this wholesale manner. To me, it didn’t matter that the staff was uninformed- I found my own books, and that was the best possible fun.

Cut to the situation now

Chain-store booksellers like Crossword are being put through the wringer. Online sellers give amazing discounts and also stock much better inventories than brick and mortar stores, with their overheads like rentals, electricity bills, staff salaries etc. and limited retail space, just cannot offer. Most people have limited funds for buying books, and we’d rather get more bang for our buck. So bargain hunters (including yours truly) flock to Amazon.

Independent bookstores have just the one store to maintain and have long-serving employees who are passionate and knowledgeable about books. This allows them to give their patrons a truly special experience, which attracts dedicated bibliophiles to them (though even that number is dropping every day, causing many indie stores to shut shop).

Chain-store booksellers with their multiple stores cannot match this either. And so they find themselves caught smack-dab in the middle, catering to the one demographic that still shops there- young families. They work hard to stock everything a young parent will need (birthday gifts, return gifts, toys or DVDs for the non-readers in the family etc). They strive to become a one-stop destination for a harried parent -the kids can browse while the parent buys last-minute gifts, for Diwali or Christmas, or that niece/nephew/friend whose birthday sneaked up without a reminder.

Serious, dedicated readers are not going to come there anyway- they will choose Amazon or indie stores. So I don’t think Crossword and other chain-store booksellers are doing anything wrong or look-down-upon-able by selling bookmarks and tshirts and toys. They are adapting to stay afloat in a market that is already killing the book retail business.

Published first by the author on Facebook

Image source: shutterstock

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Urja Ketkar discovered the magic of books when her Ma took her to the library

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