Bookstores, around the world
When I visit a new city in a new country, I make it a point to visit a local museum or two. Not only does a museum enrich one's knowledge of history, but it also introduces individuals to the age-old traditions and cultures of that particular area. One learns about the civilisation that was established and eventually modified with time, giving birth to new lifestyles, belief systems, and a common stance held by its people. Bookstores play the same role.
I also make it a point to visit as many bookstores as possible when visiting new places, and some of the experiences to be had there actually define the culture and the people who live there.
While in Thailand, bookstores with a structured system, both offline and online, are preferred by the authorities and customers—high ceilinged, large bookstores, with sophisticated software keeping count of stock and sales—maybe to prioritise security amongst tourists, many places in Europe are actually witnessing a rise in second hand bookstores. Books there strewn around, piled up under a staircase or bundled up in baskets on the porch outside for customers to browse through. If you're travelling, checking out a bookstore should definitely be on your list of things to do in a new country, besides tasting the local delicacies and trying to understand the foreign culture better.
Needless to say, some of the best moments of my life have been spent inside bookstores. Browsing through shelves, flipping through pages, and of course sneaking a sniff or two from the fresh, new releases, somehow gives me peace; it manages to calm my racing, restless heart.
Take Jarir Bookstore, for instance. It is a famous bookstore in the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia, which is also quite popular amongst non-book lovers (yes, such species do exist!), because it is not just a bookstore. While growing up in the Kingdom, my weekends were spent in this book store not only going through the new arrivals but also rummaging through notebooks covered with different fabrics and designs, starting from embroideries to hand painted motifs. The store was also popular for gadgets of that era, and exclusive stationery and cards with messages that were witty and lovable. In a country with strict rules regarding public appearances, attires, and so much more, the world inside Jarir would astonishingly change, expats and locals would politely exchange words regarding stationery for school, books, the latest version of Windows, and check out gadgets on display in the corner. This was more or less the case in all branches of the store, no matter which part of the Kingdom you were in.
After moving to Bangladesh in the early 2000s, I missed this particular part of my Saudi life terribly. I later on realised that it was not merely the new releases and stationery that I found at the bookstore, it was also how safe I felt inside a bookstore—in between the tall shelves, disappearing amidst stacks. Those who entered a bookstore always had purpose in life. Their focus would only be on the shelves, looking for the titles they had written down on small pieces of paper, eyes forever trained on the pages. Indeed, it did take quite some time before I found peace again.
I found that peace in Words n Pages, a beautiful, two-storey bookstore situated in the heart of Gulshan 2. Established by theatre personality Neema Rahman, Words n Pages did not survive for more than three or four years. But those few years were wonderfully spent by the book lovers in the area, both young and old, who made it a point to visit the store at least once or twice a week, if not for original copies of new releases, then for a cup of tea or coffee upstairs.
A quick rickshaw ride (costing no more than 20-25 takas one way) from my place to the bookstore was a regular feat. Even the employees working there had become friends with their customers. Words n Pages was a second home for me back in the mid-2000s. Some of my fondest memories include the launching of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007. A bunch of us were ready with Harry Potter t-shirts, hats, and wands in hand, waiting outside the store at 7 am in the morning to grab the first copy! The book was being launched around the same time as the USA, where hundreds, if not thousands of readers had lined up to buy the first copies of the book. Yet another fond memory is that of a discussion session held by the famous filmmaker, the late Tareque Masud, and producer, editor, and filmmaker Catherine Masud. The rooftop of the bookstore was filled with film lovers and readers on that day, who were silently listening to the Masuds talking about Muktir Gaan and Matir Moyna.
I sometimes feel that the whole idea and structure of Words n Pages in the mid-2000s was probably borrowed from yet another famous bookshop, the Oxford Bookstore, on Park Street in Kolkata, which is still a quaint little shop. The further you go inside, the darker the columns get and the more exciting books and stationery you will find. Even though the current times have been unable to close down this grand store, it did compel them to follow current trends and add a cafe to the top floor. Here one finds plenty of older customers, much like the ones who have been visiting Zeenat Bookstore in New Market, Dhaka for years. Many of the readers who either like to browse or buy a book or two there have probably memorised every nook and corner of Oxford, simply because they have been visiting it since their school years.
While Kinokuniya in Siam Paragon, Bangkok, is yet another beloved nook (albeit a massive one) for one to relax in and browse through, Baatighar located in Bangla Motor, Dhaka is also one such space where readers of all ages gather every weekend to read, buy and socialise (as expected from Dhakaites!).
Although cultures apart, Baatighar and Kinokuniya have many similarities. For one, both these bookstores are modern day businesses which are surviving and running successfully despite the rise in electronic books and reading devices. Secondly, they cater to readers of all ages, starting from young readers who have just begun school to older retirees, both stores have categorised their spaces according to genres and tastes. Thirdly, both these bookstores have their own way of showcasing new releases. While Kinokuniya in Siam Paragon stacks up their new releases in a huge pyramid right in front of the entrance, Baatighar has a platform with a podium and a microphone where new books are launched by popular writers, followed by an adda session over tea and shingara, on weekends. And that is where the distinct differences in the respective cultures, especially with regards to celebrations, become so clear inside the stores.
Finally, and most importantly, a reader can sit in a corner and read a book if they would like to. Even though it is impolite to do so on the part of a consumer or a reader, and even though the owner of the bookstore has every right to put a stop to this practice which is very likely to hamper their business, there seems to be an unwritten rule in both the bookstores which simply lets the readers be.
Even though Covid 19 has destroyed the remainder of the already dying breed of bookstores (which of course surprisingly began to spring back a few years ago), I hope the tradition of such bookstores where readers meet face to face, where love blossoms over books and young minds find peace, never disappears. Not only for the few readers who like to browse from one stack to another, but for civilisations who are kept alive by books, kicking and growing by the generation.
Elita Karim is a journalist, musician, and editor of Star Arts & Entertainment and Star Youth, The Daily Star. She tweets @elitakarim.
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