Do Not Let the Book Stores Die!
A new year resolution.
The times they are a-changing- no one makes New Year resolutions any more, except perhaps two high profile individuals, one a politician and the other an industrialist. The former naturally resolves to fell a couple more Opposition governments in the states, and the latter to double his income yet again in twelve months. They are becoming so predictable I wish they would resolve something new, like the oneh abjuring the use of the word "termites" or the otheri saying "No" to another airport.
My cup generally overfloweth on New Year's eve, usually with single malt and soda, but the only resolution I allow myself is to get back to my flat before I pass out. I do not follow the herd in making New Year resolutions because my short-term memory is rather weak, though the long-term one is fine.
I can remember, for example, when in 2012 Mr. Modi demanded a legislation for MSP for agricultural crops, but cannot remember why now he is refusing to bring such a law. In my more lucid moments ( which are becoming rarer) I can clearly recollect that I was married on 24th of January 1977 but manage to forget the date every year- it's worse than forgetting an EMI payment, for I get saddled with principal, interest, penal interest, fine and a three day quarantine with the doggie.
Given the state of my telomeres, therefore, it is better not to make any resolutions.
But this year is an exception and I have made two New Year resolutions which I intend to share with the reader, whether he likes it or not. My first resolution is that I shall not buy any books through e-commerce companies like Amazon, Flipkart etc., I shall buy them from brick and mortar bookshops. Not that I have anything against the former, it's just that I would like to help preserve a little bit of the civilised world I grew up in. Digital is fine, but we can't allow it to take over our lives.
Bookshops just cannot compete with the deep pockets, discounts and reach of on-line platforms ( not to mention Kindle and similar apps), and are going out of business at an alarming rate. Ten years ago there were five bookshops in Greater Kailash M Block market, today there are none- all replaced by jewellery stores. It's the same with South Extension, Khan Market, Connaught Place; there's not a single bookshop within a two kilometer radius of where I live in East Delhi. An article in Scroll.in sometime back reported that about 100 bookstores have closed down but this is most likely an underestimation.
Ironically, this is happening precisely at a time when there has been a boom in the number of books published, authors and readers also. The benefit of this, however, is going to the on-line platforms. Apart from the convenience of home delivery, they offer deep discounts which the bookshop with its fixed expenses cannot possibly match. These digital platforms typically get a 40%-50% margin on the published price of a book and can afford to offer most of it to the buyer as a discount; they can even opt for predatory pricing below even their buying price- the JIO model of pricing- to drive the competition out of business. Their AI algorithms modify the prices every day to keep the competition at bay. Once they have exterminated these B+ M shops, of course, prices will be jacked up and you will even be charged a hefty sum for delivery.
But this unfair competition is not the only reason why bookstores must be encouraged and protected. The reason is best expressed by Satabdi Mishra, the owner of a travelling indie bookshop, in an article on Nov. 25, 2020:
" Bookshops are one of the few spaces that uphold democratic values, social justice and freedom of thought and speech. Bookshops are our best hope of keeping truth alive, to help us speak up, more loudly, with more courage, each time our voices are silenced by oppressors. Bookshops are spaces that bring us together, help us empower ourselves with knowledge...."
Bookshops, like libraries, are oases of civilisation in the lumpen world of Twitter and Facebook; they are the stuff of a lively democracy; they connect us with like minded people, with our cultural past, the world of distant lands, the romance of history. They inculcate and stimulate a love for books by the very act of browsing over titles, picking them up lovingly and riffling through their pages. You cannot do this by scrolling on a lifeless website or URL. You have to touch, feel and smell a book to appreciate the attraction of the written word. I find nothing more comforting than the musty smell of a bookshop.
I had an early exposure to them. My grandfather and uncles owned three bookshops in Calcutta ( it was not known as Kolkata then): two in New Market and one in the lobby of the Grand Hotel on Chowringhee, collectively known as SHUKLA+ CO. All the tea planters of Assam and north Bengal bought their reading material from our shops. During my school holidays I spent all my days in them, helping my uncles in selling the books: I received four annas for every book I sold. I didn't make much money for I was more interested in discovering new books and authors, and devouring them before the vacations came to an end.
In college in Calcutta and New Delhi, Sundays were spent in the second hand bookshops on College Street and Free School Street, behind Red Fort, Chor Bazaar and Daryaganj- all of them now removed for reasons of traffic management or security ( the catch-all phrases for philistine ignorance, whether the govt. is dealing with bookshops or farmers!). My engagement with bookshops has been a love affair that will go with me to the grave along with, I hope, a bound copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam.
Buying ( or selling) a book should not be a vulgar mercenary transaction, as it is when you press a key on your computer to buy one. In my times we did it differently, a vanished art which I re-discovered last month. I was taken on a "signing" tour of Delhi's best known bookstores by Penguin Random House, as part of the marketing strategy for my last book, POLYTICKS, DEMOCKRAZY AND MUMBO-JUMBO.
After many years I met again the bookshop owners and their customers. A book is not supposed to be just picked off a shelf like a packet of cigarettes, a certain etiquette has to be followed- after half an hour of browsing through the various sections, you ask the owner for a certain title or author, mein host produces half a dozen of them, suggests some books of his own, shows you the latest issues.
It's time now for a cup of coffee or a cigarette, over which the two of you discuss who actually wrote Shakespeare's plays or whether Hemingway was a better journalist or writer. No one is in a hurry and in the fullness of time a book is bought, a bond cemented. I witnessed all this again after many years, and my heart did what Wordsworth's usually did on seeing a daffodil.
Surely we cannot allow this dimension of our culture to die at the hands of Amazon and AI algorithms which know NOTHING about books: my book, which is pure political satire and humour, has been categorised by Amazon under " Social Sciences!"
If we do not change our pernicious habits the time is not far away when the last bookstore will down its shutters for ever, perhaps to be followed by public libraries which too have been dealt a mortal blow by the pandemic. Delhi has about 150 of them and many of the non-govt. ones are on the verge of closure. They need to be assisted by the government for they provide a public service, especially to people/ students from the lower economic sections who cannot to afford to buy books. As regards the bookshops, I noted that many have attempted to supplement their revenues by selling cosmetics, toiletries, coffee and snacks.
But some some interventions can be considered by the government too. For example, 12 countries in the EU, including Germany, have legislated a " Fixed Pricing Policy" which prevents on-line portals and platforms from selling books below the printed price; empirical evidence shows that this has in fact helped B+M bookshops to better compete with their on-line rivals. I am not holding my breath for this one, however, for nothing would suit the present political dispensation better than the closure of all means of transmitting real knowledge.
Libraries and bookshops are public goods/ services for they are repositories of knowledge, of that which distinguishes homo sapiens from all other living creatures- the intellect and the mind ( not the brain, for that is just a collection of synapses and tissue, which AI has already bettered). To survive the digital age they need the support of the state as well as of each one of us, individually. And so I went to Faquir Chand's in Khan Market and bought two books: Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari and Ten Lessons For A Post Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria; I even got a 10% discount! Neerja swears she could see the halo around my head as I exited the shop.