Monday, September 11, 2006

Not any more in a book store

I visited the Crossword at Mulund. It is big, bright, noisy, and has a really chic café. There are books too.

The reason I was there was to buy ‘Roots’ for J. I asked one of the assistants somewhat skeptically if she knew where I could find the book. Since I don’t really expect the Crossword staff to know about books, the blank expression didn’t come as a surprise. She looked at me wide-eyed. Similar reaction has been encountered in Pune when I tell a rick-fellow that I won’t pay half-return at 8:30 p.m.

Conversation went thus:

‘I’m looking for ‘Roots’ by …’

‘You want ‘Roots’?’

‘Yes’

‘Like garden…or something’,
says assistant, escorting me to the ‘Non-fiction’ section.

‘No. ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley. It’s a novel.’

‘Oh.’
Disappointed because she was about to show me a vibrant coffee-table book with a gnarled specimen on the cover. ‘Please ask there.’

‘Where?’, I look around.

‘At the Information’. She doesn’t say ‘DUH!’ but I can sense things that get muttered in the brain.

I approach the ‘Information’ desk. Man looks up.

I give him the details. ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley.

He types. I am pretty sure he has typed in ‘Hailey’ – the ‘H-ley’ with more mass appeal. I correct the spelling.

Nothing comes up.

Suddenly, out of the blue, jolting me out of the reverie I am in whilst browsing through a pasta cookbook, he snaps:

“ ‘Roots’ is the name of the book or the name of the author? ''

I consider a line of questioning that involves finding out if he is for real. Decide against it.

‘Book’

He types in some more. Nothing.

‘How have you spelt the title?’ I ask, suspecting some unintelligence.

‘R-U-T-S?’, asks the man wondering if there is an alternative way to spell something that obvious. Maybe ‘R-O-U-T-E-S’. Hmm.

‘Is that even a word?’, I ask impatiently.

‘Could be’.

Ah. Zen.

‘R-O-O-T-S’, I spell. (Not R double-0 T-S, in case that is what he types in the computer.)

‘Nope ma’am. No such book.’

Around me, people are browsing or going through the shelves systematically. Obviously, the key to finding anything in Crossword is to understand the code of how books are arranged, and then cracking it. No help is to be expected except from a fellow-broswer.

Here, however, the arrangement of books is not simplistic at all. I find Vikram Seth in ‘Indian Fiction’ and then again in ‘Indian Literature’ and surprisingly, in ‘Classic Novels’. Ditto Tolstoy. Then there is P.G. Wodehouse, along with J.R.R. Tolkien on a table with a placard, ‘Old Classics’, which is to be differentiated from ‘Classic Novels’ that is populated with Jane Austen and George Eliot. Salman Rushdie is nowhere in the aforementioned categories but rests lavishly bound under a simple ‘Fiction’. ‘The Alchemist’ is under business management while ‘Veronica Decides to Die’ is under Spiritual. And some books on acupuncture are heaped in the ‘Astrology’ section.

If the message here is that thoughts have no boundaries and all writing arises from a common consciousness that defies categorization, etc. etc., then the arrangement is excellent. If on the other hand, convenience is what the store was going for, well…doped rats in a rotating maze have had it easier.

Since hunt for the book came to a dead end, I went to the café and ordered a vanilla latte and a chicken sandwich. Both excellent. But somehow it made me a little sad. This place is a bookstore but you wouldn’t know it from the number of people eating and chatting away at the café (stylishly called ‘Brio’.) I remember what my friend Dominic had told me about Crossword: ‘That place has music for God’s sakes! How can you take it seriously?’

Of course, Dominic was a purist in such matters. To him, a bookstore was like a temple. The books had to be revered and the first step to revering a book is to know about it. Otherwise, it’s just weight on shelves.

In my college days, I have visited some quaint bookstores where the owners of the stores knew as much about readers as about books. I had gone looking for Sylvia Plath’s ‘Bell Jar’ in a place in Dadar. It wasn’t available. The septuagenarian talked to me a little bit and suggested I try Dorothy Parker. She’s one of my favorites now.

I had taken my brother to a hole in the wall near V.T. My brother, until then, did not read anything that didn’t have a duck looking character in it. He used all my copies of Malory Towers to kill cockroaches. (It was quite traumatic when I found a squashed roach on the book one night. Our relationship is a little strained, as one can imagine.) Anyway, after making some stupid comments about the books in that store (such as ‘That’s his middle name? ‘MAKEPEACE’? He he he! And what’s that? ‘THACKERAY’! MAKEPEACE THACKERAY! Maybe that’s his agenda, not name. Ha ha ha!’ or ‘Harper Lee isn’t Chinese?’ or ‘Take this book. It’s only 50 bucks but so thick! So little money, but so many pages.’)

It was very embarrassing to be caught with someone so boorish. But the owner chatted him up good and proper, sold him ‘Saki’ and got him hooked to good, solid storytelling. Today, with some pride, I can count my brother as among the few people I know who has read John Steinbeck. (Not that reading Steinbeck is itself an accomplishment, but his books are without pictures and don’t involve men conducting funny experiments in closed labs…and that, considering my bro’s proclivities is a huge leap in reading evolution.)

I miss that in Crossword now – people who actually know about the stuff they are selling. Okay, forget ‘know’..at least, have a vague idea of what they’re heaving from one table to another. It had good staff when it wasn’t a chain. The store actually had people who could tell you the plot of a book if you asked them. It had quaint, unknown books too. Now, it’s just about the publicized papyrus. I can’t imagine getting an Edna O’Brien in any of the outlets now. I can’t find a book that hasn’t been made into a movie or doesn’t have a controversial author or hasn’t featured in a Bestsellers list. Of course, not that it is Crossword’s folly. Could be sign of the times we live in. But what about those obscure titles that you find in the midst of all the well-knowns? Or the quiet people that hover around you and recommend one title or the other? The ones who tell you that you must try this or you may like that or have you read the other?

This bit of depth, along with the books, is what makes a bookstore. Otherwise, with just the space and light and instrumental music and a large café, it’s just another showroom.

Just go there for a sandwich.

50 comments:

Rashmi said...

i concur to the T.My eccentricity: I like book shops where most books are stacked horizonally (like i do at home). Strand and Premier (at Blore) are 2 such places. Unfortunately in India, unlike UK or US, second hand books do not get an iota of space in any of these places. One has to search the bylanes for those...and what treasures await there. I'd got my copy of Gone With The Wind for Rs.30, and Austens for Rs.20. Sigh!

The Nonconformist said...

Go to Manneys in Pune. That guy has an amazing knowledge.

I asked for Kerouac and he showed all of them along with some Ginsberg.

Anonymous said...

The book is veronika decides to die..

nice post :)

White Magpie said...

I would recommend the shops selling second hand books anyday. They are mucho more knowledgeable and know the worth..

Ameet said...

LOL - OMG - I didn't know they have gone so far downhill.

neha said...

i am planning to apply to work for a bookstore these holidays and was trying to think how should i approach my application.

i think i'll ask them who are they looking for, someone who has retail experience or someone who is into books, i.e., if i get to talk to the person who will be looking at the CVs.

maybe, i should print out your post and tell them that i know exactly what people are looking for ;)

ggop said...

I feel your pain. I had a similar feeling of dissatisfaction in Landmark, Chennai.
gg

Govar said...

You can probably try the crossword at inorbit mall. I bought Alex Haley's "Autobio of Malcolm X". Maybe, just may be they got Roots too. And btw, if I ask for a book thats not available, guys at the Crossword always tell me the other Crossword branches that have it. You can try that too. All said, I think the Landmark at Infinity mall has much variety that any of the crosswords that i visited.

Ambar said...

This kind of thing can be very annoying. I had a similar experience once at the Bangalore Landmark, when a query for 'Animal Farm' was met with 'children's books section'. :D

Mukta said...

Hi Rashmi,

Very true - there really should be something for second hand books.

Hi nonconformist,

Thanks a lot! Where is Manneys? I'll definitely visit it.

Hey anon,

Yes. Thanks a lot! :-) Have made the correction. hee hee!

hello white magpie,

Long time! Thats true.

Hi Ameet,

Probably the ones in Mulund and Powai are bad. Maybe the town one is still good. Haven't visited for a long long time now!

Hey Neha!
Brilliant! All the very best!

Hi ggop,
:-) There is a Landmark in Bombay too. It is HUGE! I was quite impressed with it. Great collection of books there!

Hi govar,

Have you read 'aUtobiography of Malcolm X'? Well, I have never had much luck with the ordering thing at Crossword. Have given up now. But you are right. I should try that again. Thanks!

Hey ambar!

he he! Really now! :-D

Nonentity said...

hi noncon. could you tell me where manneys is in pune? thanks!!

MellowDrama said...

I totally agree tho Oxford is a tad bit better, and Crossword in South Mumbai has some pretty smart help. My first love remains Foutain (whereabouts now really) - one of the thella owners is an MA in English and a font of knowledge, no kidding! I love Dorthy Parker, have her entire collection...and Thackery too, Becky beats ol scarlette (GOne with the Wind) any day of the year. Here in Vizag, they have opened a damn nice bookshop, bit crosswordish but minus the music and they rustle up a mean cup of cofeee (for free in tenny plastic cups) if you appear to be a serious buyer. Just blew up 2 grand there yday, the coffee did me in. Got some awesoem books, tell ya later

Rajini said...

hey rashmi,
I searched whole lot of shops to find ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley. Crossword and Oxford doesn't have a copy nor even aware of it.. asked about the same on a road-side book seller near VT who had an interesting collection on display. What fascinated me was, he didn't have book then, but he told me (in eloquent english) story of Roots about how a man pursues to get connected to his roots. Seems this movie also was a major hit.

If u r still hunting for the book, am sure u wud be able to find it Bookzone at VT, if they r out of stock they will get u the book in a week if u place the order. They had more copies when my search ended there..

Get ur copy now. Its one of the best books I have read so far!

Lady Writer said...

Bangalore has Blossom, a fabulous used-book store. (There used to be another place whose name I forget, opposite Peco's, but I'm not sure if it still exists.) And, yes, there's always Strand and Premier, for new and rare books at discounts.

Rajini said...

Apologies.. I mistaken the author of this blog to be rashmi as that pops next to comments..

Mukta, I hope u find the book.

vishal said...

hey nonentity and mukta,
Manneys is between Westend and Westside a lil off MG Road.

The Nonconformist said...

Its just beside The Place in Clover Center

Sid said...

I empathise. And, I find an ounce of homework is better than a pound of trouble: I write down the name of the book, the author's name, AND the ISBN, in large capital letters and hand that paper to the store assistants. Not a word said, not a hair greyed, and the world is a much nicer place.

Note 1: all these details are easily available at online bookstores. I prefer www.firstandsecond.com.

Note 2: The ISBN for Roots, by Alex Haley, Special Indian Edition, is 0440174643.

Happy reading!

mandar talvekar said...

The Mulund Crossword is really notorious for its clueless staff. Usually when I visit a bookstore, I prefer going around it, shelf by shelf. About a month back I happened to be at Nirmal Lifestyles and decided to pay Crossword a hurried trip to see if they had a copy of "Nyagrodha, the tree of stories" by Kalpish Ratna. Since I was in a hurry I asked one of the Crossword staff if the book was available. Questions ranged from "Is it a book about trees?" to "Is it a story book?" Finally I wrote it down and asked them to look it up in their database. I was helpfully told that "It is available in the Kemps Corner store."
A friend picked up the book for me, off the shelf, from the same store about a week later.
Last Saturday, a friend and me were in Mulund to watch a movie. Post the show, we had some time to kill before meeting some landed at Crossword. I wanted to get "No Onions, Nor Garlic." I made my way straight to the new arrivals section and found it for some reason hidden behind copies of "Sacred Games."
My friend to whom I had described my earlier experience, made a beeline to one of the staff and asked if they had a book in the cookery section called "No Onions, Nor Garlic." The staff member very helfully went through a shelf of books with him and regretfully announced that they didn't have the book. The staff then asked him to leave his number and said they would order it for him. He declined the offer.
On our way out he asked me - " Are they really dumb or are they simply playing along?"
Wish I knew.

Blythe Spyryt said...

It is v exasperating to search for a particular book in Crossword. At the same time i do wonder about whether it is fair to expect these Crossword guys to be well-read or even moderately read or know about library science (sorting et al) as they come from different backgrounds and basically are there to earn their daily bread and butter. It is sad to see a popular bookstore lose its quality service once it becomes a book mall...but then again, these helpers are at the very basic level. Goodness knows if the managers or even the owners are as enthu abt it as the reading population that browses thru its shelves. I have read a lot thruout my life, but i doubt id be able to pick the right book off the right shelf if i were helping someone find a book (were i working there as well).

White Magpie said...

Yes, long time. But then I missed you today :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, finding a good bookstore as well as people who know books is near impossible.

I go through the same experience whenever I am browsing the Science Fiction section; there are authors beyond Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, you know…

And yes, the guys at the counter are totally dependent on the computer…after all that’s what got them their job, not a love for reading!

Jay Sun (http://moirealitybites.blogspot.com/)

Dinesh said...

Blossom in Bangalore is a very good used and new books shop. And unlike crossword, the staff knows where a book is and mostly, ehat the book is about. All my book purcahses are from there.
And not surprisingly, all the roadside booksellers know their books too.
Btw, great blog here. :)

Swathi said...

add me to the above list of 'Blossoms' fans but then I do not live in B'lore ***sigh*** .But thankfully Hyd'bad has this quaint lille place -Akshara.. (sad to know ur experience at Crossword , now I'm not distressed that i dont visit it often enough)

nadim said...

best bookstore in us : Barnes & noble's

ders nuthn lik sipping starbucks while readin a book nd occasionally scanning the tables for beautiful grls...

nt jus that but deir stores r found almost evrwher and alof dem r vry well connectd...

The Marauder's Map said...

You've completely portrayed my angst here. These glossy chain bookstores are the worst culprits, though honestly I haven't got very good service at this Bangalore bookstore called Blossom either, which has an amazing collection of used books but again employes people not very familiar with them.

Still, it has that lovely old-books smell rather than the sanitised coffee-and-muffins one of bookstores with cafes that are reduced to being 'hang-outs'.

Anonymous said...

I like the crossroad bookstore at hiranandani. no salesmen heckling. We can browse and go through the books at our own time. Yeah the cofee and food inside does distract sometimes but i like the ambience created like that of a library.
Shainy

Mistress of Magic said...

i second what mandar has said about the crossword at mulund. The staff is super-rude too.

Blue Athena said...

Loved reading this. Ah yes, am at Powai Crossword so often one might be forgiven for assuming I work there! :P

Michael J. Farrand said...

I'm with you on the "blank stare" of the average clerk these days. As you seem to have a great interest in books, I thought you might enjoy looking over the titles in a list of classic novels I recently compiled. Please let me know what's missing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks booklovers, this was one nice place to visit. In the midst of the Mumbais and Bangalores, here's a small oddity.

Its almost 15 years since I was in Lucknow, on Hazratganj Main Road , there was this little sign on a pillar saying books, I took the stairs up and landed up in a small
wooden platform that jutted out onto the road. I looked around, found multiple treasures and after an hour presented my pile to the old gentleman presiding over the affairs. To my absolute shock, he refused to sell the books. He would look at the books, and if they were really good, he would only lend them out. It took a good 15 minutes convincing to make the point that since I lived in Delhi, I could not possibly borrow, read and return the books. He finally relented and I paid a hefty Rs 100/- for at least 10 books. He was 'happy' about the books I had chosen and mentioned at least 10 more that I should read. I don't know if the shop still exists or if he is still alive, but I cannot think of a better place to write this ode to that little shop in Lucknow after 15 years! And thanks, I live in Bangalore now and had almost given up till I found Premier and now Blossoms thru this page..

janaki said...

hi,
i felt the same angst few years back and decided to open my own bookstore ! chk out twistntales in Pune, aundh and do give me feedback. BTW, we have "roots" if u r still looking for it!
ciao,
janaki

poems said...

it was wonderful reading all the views on the book retailing in india today.

but this is the case not only with mumbai or bangalore or crossword or landmark or any small book store....i was in london last month and i entered Borders bookstore on oxford street. the staff over there is even worse. I asked for the new book by jeffery archer... can you believe the store help didnt know who is jeffery archer...in a bookstore in london.

the lesson we learn here is..stores like crossword and other chain store would love to have people who kow about books and who really would like to work for the love for books or book trade....the fact is WORKING IN A BOOKSTORE IS NOT A PROMISING CARREER. ..It does not pay you what a job at call centre/BPO would pay.

btw..i work for a bookseller...just for the love for the trade...i would earn twice as much if i was taking calls from people 4000 miles away.

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