It was a unique experience to set foot inside the Premier Book Shop located on Church Street in Bangalore. I deliberately employ the past tense since the store itself was forced to shut down in 2009 due to a burgeoning increase in rent. And on the 5th of May 2021, the demise of the genial owner Shri T.S.Shanbhag brought the curtains down on a glittering and glorious legacy in the annals of bookstores in the city. Maneuvering within the Premier Book Shop was an art as well as an absolute nightmare. A customer always needed to tread gingerly lest he or she knock down a pile of books stacked vertiginously and unsteadily. Cataloguing and categorization were notions alien and any genre could be found anywhere at random. It was as though a giant hand has enveloped the bookstore in its palm before giving it a godawful shake, thereby leaving the books scattered in all directions in a haphazard manner. But a supreme contrast to this veritable mayhem, was Mr. Shanbag in absolute equipoise. He was the creator, the catalogue, the chaos and the confusion. He was also the redeemer. Upon furnished the title of a book he could miraculously locate it from the depths of any humongous pile, in the time it tool to just mouth “book”. The last time I was in The Premier Book Shop was to scour, successfully at the end, for a copy of Sir Neville Cardus’ classic “Cardus At The Covers”. This brings us to the very topical and essential question forming the subject matter of this piece. Do we need to support independent bookstores? My personal response is a resounding yes. While the shutting down of The Premier Book Store produced a profound sense of loss in every bibliophile worth her salt in Bangalore (and perhaps beyond the city as well), the current trend towards oligarchical and mega bookstores is ensuring the demise of hundreds of Premier Book Shops across the world. In fact, 20% of the independent bookstores spread across the United States of America are under threat of going out of business at the time of writing this post.
So why is it that we all have a beholden duty to protect Independent Book Stores before they become mere footnotes in history? What behooves us to act post haste in preventing the vice like uber capitalistic tentacles of Amazon from snuffing out these resilient vendors of books? Here are some of the quintessential reasons as to why the world needs the continued existence and presence of Independent Book Stores:
The Personal Touch
Mr.Shanbag not only plucks out “Cardus at the Covers” in a miraculous fashion from the debris spread around him, but also suggests, Jack Fingleton’s “And Quietly Flows The Don.” Something which an Amazon or a Barnes & Noble is incapable of performing. Of course in a world characterised by ‘brute force algorithms’, there would be a continuous flood of ‘recommendations’ and ‘books based on your reading’ that is put out by these behemoths especially if one buys books online. But these Artificial Intelligence driven pathways would miserably fail before your trusted bookseller. You are for him/her the most valuable book which he/she has read inside out. It is this touch that is responsible for customization, care, concern and creativity. You lose an independent bookstore and you are devoid of this personal element for ever.
Civility, a type of which is an absolute rarity can only be fostered by an independent bookstore. The book seller knows not just about you, but also the latest medication which your dog happens to be on. The relationship between an independent book seller and a regular customer transcends the commercial to venture into the familial. Thus no book on International Tax would be given to me by the proprietor of Puliani Book Stores, before we have had a leisurely conversation over a cup of piping hot tea and definitely not before I have convinced the man that I am indeed recovering satisfactorily from a recently sustained hip fracture!
The perfect meeting place for the author and his audience
A small, cozy and confined books store is also the melting pot for ideas emanating from an extraordinary clique. By offering a refuge to both authors and readers, an independent bookstore fosters and ferments intuitions, interactions and at times even institutions.
The Joy Of Never Missing Out
An independent bookstore is the perfect antidote to the Fear Of Missing Out (“FOMO”). Due to the magnificent and an almost implicit rapport forged between the reader and the owner, the former ensures that no book of his favourite author that is published gets sold out before he has had his copy. Similarly the bookstore also is assured of a steady sale due to a patronage that is willingly ‘locked-in’. A wonderful win-win situation for both parties.
You are always welcome, for our name is informality
An independent bookstore is always flexible. The shutters do not come down like clockwork at 9.30 P.M. You can still keep strolling, gallivanting, salivating, selecting, browsing before packing and paying for the books. The owner will neither hurry you or cast looks of absolute daggers at you. This, in my personal opinion is one of the unmatched joys of frequenting an independent bookstore. A Landmark or a Crossroad, or a Higginbotham’s, in disquieting contrast will have hooters, alarms, public announcements and everything in between (other than a pair of attack dogs to scare you out of the shop), that begin their task of warning the customer that they have just 30 minutes to go before they would need to double up as watchmen.
Independent bookstores serve the community in an incredible manner. The amount which one spends in an independent bookstore also circulates within the community unlike the money spent on huge franchises. They also serve as a totally safe place for children to relax after a tiring day at school or at the games.
Supporting indigenous authors
Independent bookstores are renowned for their support to and of new and local authors. The stores do not shy away from stacking titles penned by such authors. This is in sharp contradiction to the more reputed franchise and chain stores that are simply reluctant to lend publicity to local authors.
Hence is its incumbent on each of us to do our bit as avid book lovers to preserve, protect and patronize independent bookstores. It is on each of us to ensure that the legacy instituted by a Mr.T.S.Shanbag does not fade away into oblivion.