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’?’
‘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.
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.
‘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.