I belong to a generation that was born in 70s and general reading beyond the books prescribed in the school curriculum was a rare phenomenon. Literature for kids was practically unheard of. Tintin, Chacha Chaudhary, Champak, Chandamama and some similar such were a few periodicals that represented the kidlit category in bookstores or on newspaper stands. Hardy Boys, Famous Five and Nancy Drew series were a few series which were available to young adults of those times. Written words could be beyond the ‘ABC of Physics’ or Lakhmir Singh and Manjeet Kaur came as a realisation to me when I completed my schooling years. I was introduced to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by my well-meaning brother who wanted me to work on the language skills. Looking back now, I can say, that was the first turning point in my life and there has not been any stopping since then. That was the time when I devoured the age defying classics. Reading complete works of authors like Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas and so on became the new passion in life which continued as my close associate through my college and hostel years. The books became my destination (to fall back on), in almost all moods and at all times - when I was elated, when I felt low, when I was excited, when I was down in dumps, when I wanted to talk to somebody or when I wanted to severe all links with the physical world. A couple of dusty old bookstores in the city were the only source that held the key to my sanity as well as to my dreams in young starry eyes. Trips to those few bookstores had special value in my heart but the highlight of those trips continued to be that bag which I held close to my heart while coming out of the stores. The temporary occupants of that bag held promise for newer world that they would unlock in the coming few days.
I was in for a big surprise when the experience of browsing, sampling, purchasing and reading books got a complete makeover when I first laid my foot in a Barnes and Nobles store in USA. A bookstore could be so invitingly warm and affable, was beyond my imagination. Those were the places which offered way more than just books to buy, rather they were the best combination of a library cum a bookstore. One could sit on a low stool and go through the blurbs at the back of the books, one could sprawl on the carpeted floor and go through first two chapters to see if it is really the one that one wants to pick up, one could finish a short book then and there itself, one could visit these bookstores even after the dinner for that pre-sleep reading, one could sip hot coffee while reading through one’s choice of book, - just the thought of all these possibilities is sufficient to make one head towards one such store immediately.
Back home in India, chain of bookstores by the name Crossword come very close to the concept as has been adopted by American bookstores. It took no time to adapt to the routine of visiting Crossword very frequently and to explore what different aisles had on display. By then I had two little companions in my children who thankfully shared my definition of celebrating any holiday/relaxed time by visiting Crossword. A trip to the bookstore became a kind of ritual that we religiously adhered to whenever we felt like giving ourselves a treat (which has been more often than not).
Over the years books that I purchased became my prized possessions and the personal library(though tiny) at home became a great asset. Entered the online book sources, in the form of flipkart setting the trend and others joining the bandwagon soon. I greeted this new addition happily. Over the last few years I have tried my bit to give almost equal business to physical bookstores and online portals and the combination worked fairly well. I had no reason to complain as trips to physical stores remained a highlight and what I did not find there could easily be ordered through the online resources.
But things do change though the pace of it may vary from being accelerated to the one that could shame even a snail. Well, what happened last year can only be called former kind. Physical space on bookshelves was becoming a big challenge as they sagged and threatened to give way and this time I could not ignore the warning signals that were quite loud and clear. Hence, I very stoically(I think) decided to part with some books that I felt I would never revisit and so they were bundled up in some 5-6 big bags. I took them to the old book store where they were looked down upon with great disdain and the shopkeeper very obligingly offered to buy them for an utterly meager amount. It felt like I was gifting a precious necklace to a tree to decorate itself. That moment a realisation dawned on me, perhaps this is the time to adapt another change in life - to move to e-version of the books. Sensing my internal dilemma and my compromisingly achieved resolve, my better half tried to make it a little easier for me by gifting me a Kindle on my birthday. Though I was the one who earlier used to proudly decline any ebooks for reading or reviewing, I think, now I was ready to give it an open-minded try. Its been three weeks since I became an owner of an Amazon Oasis and I am happy to say that I am a satisfied reader. The convenience of browsing, purchasing and downloading a book of one’s choice is simply unparalleled. The objective of this piece of writing is not to advertise Amazon Oasis but cannot help mentioning ‘one-tap’ access to dictionary and to add my little notes while reading. I am sure I am quite far from the time when space on this device will become a limitation.
I think I have digressed a little here. So as my reading habit has undergone a complete metamorphosis which I am enjoying too, there is one thing which I will sorely be missed - the fun trips to physical bookstores. I believe many more readers who earlier were faithful patrons of physical books are making this transition, thanks to various factors - ease of availability of wide variety of books, cheaper e-versions, eReaders on handheld devices etc. But I can say one thing, whenever I hear or read news about such and such bookstore closing down or going out of business, I feel really sad. Touching the paperbacks and hardcovers, skimming through the pages, feeling the texture of pages and the cover, serendipitously coming across a gem when it was not being searched for, picking some free bookmarks from the counter, collecting unique bookmarks - were just a few things that could melt my heart any day any time.
Not sure about other avid readers, but I was just questioning myself, has the time come to put an epitaph on physical bookstores now? If yes, then what should be inscribed on that? Personally for me,
A refuge for the troubled
A jubilation for the happy
An embrace for the lonely
A voice for the taciturn
Coming to you, meant, homecoming!