Suddenly, books are sexy. With the mainstream popularity of lit fests, Chetan Bhagat bestsellers morphing into Bollywood blockbusters, Shobhaa De’s frequent outings on television, Jeffrey Archer’s wooing of the world’s “largest English-speaking” population, the easy recognisability of Amish Tripathi and his envy-dripping writing advance of ₹5 crore as a cult celebrity, it could hardly be otherwise. Read them or not, you’ve got to love them as the latest accessory, an intellectual luxury, so to say — but hey, where do you buy books?
Malls do have bookstores, but they’re bustling places where a “70% discount” is the draw rather than the quality of selection of books. No luxury mall has a book shop; buying on Flipkart is enticing but hardly what book lovers enjoy — physically touching books, pulling them out of shelves, turning them over to read; while Kindle is, well — sorry guys — so sterile.
The neighbourhood bookshop has all but disappeared. Fortunately, the revival of reading has received a shot in the arm. While a few of the old stores had struggled to stay on, book buying as an experience on par with lifestyle products received a boost only when CMYK debuted in Mehar Chand Market in the capital, setting a benchmark for other newbie stores (no one else quite measured up). That standard was breached by the old-new Oxford Bookstore Connaught Place in New Delhi, putting the Landmarks and Crossroads in the shade. Priti Paul’s eponymous store, which had mysteriously shut down in the capital, emerged, as the marketing slogan goes, “bigger, better and improved”. While Connaught Place itself appears to be haemorrhaging, it’s only a matter of time before it reclaims its space as the city’s premier shopping and leisure district.
The relaunched bookstore announced its arrival in the colonnaded arcades with a series of events — conversations and seminars and parties on books, translations, the Commonwealth book prize — making reading a talking point once again in a society jaded with too many fashion, art and brand launches. The space offers what bookstores increasingly lack — browsing space. In a shop where you’re encouraged to hang around, “feel” the books, lift titles enticingly displayed on shelves as provocatively as an Hermes “it” bag, chat up with writers — was that really Mohsin Hamid? and Chetan Bhagat? — attend book readings, releases and signings, it’s making a destination not just for those who’re book lovers, but for those only too happy to sign up for the experience because it shows up shopping at Gucci or Canali as a thoughtless activity compared with the intellectual feast a bookstore offers.
The selection of books helps too, even if somewhat condescendingly with “translations” of Nobel and Booker long- and short-listed writers conveniently grouped together — after all, you’d want to be pointed to the carts and shelves the papers are writing about, innit? As for those drawn to the popularity of books for their covers, there are shelves of art and illustrated books, lush productions that may cost an arm and a leg — artist Himmat Shah’s tome on terracotta that comes in a limited edition with a signed piece as the cover, is a collectible. Any wonder books — and bookstores — are being talked about again?