Monday, November 8, 2010


Musings of a Book Lover

There was a time when booksellers were booklovers.

Running a bookstore was more a labour of love rather than a business.

Yes, I am sure the enterprise had to be financially viable, and one could not ignore the bottom-line, but bookselling was not limited to trading and, surely, profit was not the only motive. Booksellers were passionate about books and fostered the love of reading in their customers, discussing, encouraging, advising, and suggesting good books. 

If you have visited The Strand Book Stall at Fort in Mumbai, you will understand what I mean. Every visit was fruitful and their annual Strand Book Festival held for a fortnight in January every year at the Sunderbai Hall near Churchgate was a treat for booklovers and I have picked up some wonderful rare books at bargain prices. In fact, when I lived the most glorious years of my life at Churchgate in Mumbai, I used to visit the Strand Book Festival every evening after my walk on Marine Drive as they used to get fresh books every day.

Booksellers went out of their way to get books for you.

A friend of mine once wanted a rare book on numismatics. We happened to be strolling on DN Road near Mumbai CST in Fort so I took him to Sterling Book House (another favourite bookstore of mine, especially for technical, management and shippie books). Jimmy assured us he would get the book, and to our incredulous delight he indeed did – he located a copy in Kolkata and got it for us.

Such was the relationship between a bookseller and a booklover – it transcended beyond a mere buying-selling relationship. I have had rewarding experiences at so many bookstores – Manneys, Popular and International Book Service in Pune, Higginbotham's at Chennai (Madras), Bangalore and Ooty, Mumbai’s Strand, Sterling, Smokers Corner and unique The New and Secondhand Book Store at Kalbadevi and even at the pavement bookstalls near Hutatma Chowk (Fountain) in Mumbai, and way back in the late 1960s at the quaint London Book Depot at BI Bazar in Bareilly who used to get for us any book we wanted. In fact, in many smaller mofussil towns, the main bookstore is an institution, a gateway to knowledge and learning.

However, these old-world bookstores did not offer much of a browsing experience. One had to stand uncomfortably cramped between bookshelves and it was quite uncomfortable to read. 

Therefore, I was quite delighted when Crossword Bookstore opened near Mahalaxmi in Mumbai (above Motilal Banarsidass – the indology bookstore). 

The new Crossword Book Store encouraged browsing and you could sit in relaxed comfort and browse to your heart’s content. 

Then Oxford Book Store opened right next door to my home in Empress Court near Churchgate. It was the ultimate in browsing experience. Comfortable rocking chairs, a Cha Bar to refresh yourself with exquisite teas and wonderful ambience – I spent some of the best moments of my life browsing in Oxford, and attending literary events, book readings and launces too. The bookstore was open from ten to ten so you could browse books the entire day and enjoy a peaceful after-dinner browse too and wifey could keep an observant eye on you from the balcony in order to ensure you were strictly browsing books.

In Pune, I browse in Landmark in Camp and sometimes at Crossword, but I suspect they have decided to discourage browsing from the subtle seating changes they have made recently.

I love books. I love browsing books. I like to see a book, pick it up in my hands, read it a bit, feel it, before I decide to buy it. That's why I don't prefer to buy books online through flipkart, amazon or indiaplaza, which is very convenient, but still I like to physically go to a bookstore, because I must have the browsing experience before buying a book.

I love investing in good books and over the years the only “wealth” I have acquired is my substantial collection of books – books on diverse topics – fiction, philosophy, management, classics, self help, food, travel, technology, hobbies, creative writing – some of my books are quite rare. I have observed that many persons do not treat books as wealth, so they borrow books and do not bother to return them. I have lost quite a few good books this way and I do try to re-acquire some of my favourite ones whenever possible.

Therefore, when a friend of mine gifted me Crossword Bookstore Gift Vouchers I visited the Crossword Bookstore at ICC Trade Towers on Senapati Bapat Road in Pune to get three of my favourite books that once adorned my bookshelves and were borrowed and never returned.

I like Crossword Bookstores, and, as I said, I have spent many delightful hours browsing in Crossword at Kemps Corner Mumbai and attending Book Launches and literary events too, so I was truly shocked and disappointed at the shabby way in which I was treated at Crossword in Pune last Wednesday afternoon. 

As I entered, I observed that the salespersons seemed disinterested, busy at doing something else like arranging books etc, there was no one at the counter, and it took me considerable time to attract the attention of a salesperson. 

I asked for a book. It is a famous book – a Pulitzer Prize winner and a bestseller. The salesperson was clueless and had never heard of this book. After I spelt out the title and author’s name, he checked on his monitor and rudely told me the book was not available. “Could you please get it for me?” I asked politely. “No,” he said nonchalantly and started walking away. I called him, aksed for a second book, another classic. He reluctantly checked and told me it was not available. I wanted to ask about a third book, but seeing the expression on his face, clearly indicating he had more important things to do than attend to a customer, I decided to leave the bookstore.

I was stunned the way the staff at Crossword treated me. Forget about customer delight, the customer service was so pathetic that it seemed that the salespersons at Crossword were just not interested in getting me the book. They were clueless about the book and obviously had no knowledge of books, let alone considering bookselling as a labour of love. They were just doing a job, and not very effectively too.

I came home and opened the Crossword Bookstore website, tried to search for the books, I was taken to Shoppers Stop website, where I sent an email query and I am still waiting for the reply. Considering the vast chain of Crossword Book Stores and their networked database, I am sure, if they want to, Crossword Pune can easily get me the books I want. I wish they treated a customer like a king…?

Looks like I will have to return the Crossword Gift Vouchers to my friend and scout some old world book stores for the books I want, or maybe I’ll try my luck with the pavement booksellers, or maybe I'll eat my words and order the books online via Flipkart or Amazon.

Dear Reader, please tell me your views – should booksellers be booklovers…?

Or has bookselling become a plain and simple trading business like selling groceries…?


VIKRAM KARVE educated at IIT Delhi, ITBHU, Lawrence School Lovedale, and Bishop's School Pune, is an Electronics and Communications Engineer by profession, a Human Resource Manager and Trainer by occupation, a Teacher by vocation, a Creative Writer by inclination and a Foodie by passion. An avid blogger, he has written a number of fiction short stories and creative non-fiction articles in magazines and journals for many years before the advent of blogging. His delicious foodie blogs have been compiled in a book "Appetite for a Stroll". Vikram lives in Pune with his family and pet Doberman girl Sherry, with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.

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Amropali said...

I think you should visit College Street in Kolkata.

It's a different feel altogether.
I've been in love with it since the day first day.

Vikram Waman Karve said...

Hi Amropali,
Yes, I did visit College Street long back in 1984 and I fully agree with you - it is indeed the best place to browse and buy books for a real bargain.
Thanks for your comments.
I wish I can visit Kolkata and College Street again.

Shaista Vaishnav said...

I completely agree with you and wish you would send this to Mumbai Mirror or Midday! I wish the Crossword back office management team would hear of this and hang their heads in shame.

Today's book-store sales people are mostly uneducated and definitely uncouth. They can't spell the simplest name...they've never heard of best-selling authors...they can't even comprehend why people would be so passionate about finding a book in the first place...and they can just about manage the outdated search software on those rusty old desktop computers.

I whole-heartedly agree that book-sellers should be book-lovers - suggesting options, exchanging information, guiding one to books.

And that does not change
regardless of the decade. Regardless of the setting. Regardless of cramped stools or plush sofas.

I'd rather have a book-seller who cares than a fancy coffee shop in my kinda bookstore...any day.

Vikram Waman Karve said...

Thanks Shaista Vaishnav. I too love old world book stores like Strand in Mumbai or even the pavement booksellers in Fort who are quite knowledgeable about books.