The last time I visited a bookstore (which was just last week), I sat down to read Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats: incidentally, a chapter wherein he talks about his favourite bookstores. It ends like this: “Writing this, all those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people…I wonder who I would have been, without those shelves, without those people and those places, without books. I would have been lonely, I think, and empty, needing something for which I did not have the words.”
I couldn’t describe bookstores or their lure better than that. But I can describe a few of the repositories that have shaped my life.
Strand Book Stall: This age-old bookstore in the packed Fort area will always be a living epitome of T.N. Shanbhag. He loved books and was kind enough to offer additional discounts to students, even giving away books free of cost, with a simple promise that he be paid back when the reader’s means allowed. No wonder then that this cramped, erratic, no-frills bookstore is still favoured and revered. There is no clear pattern to discern at Strand; different genres and authors jostle for the same space. But it’s this very chaos that helps one stumble onto something special.
Kitab Khana: With high ceilings, wooden columns, and a creaky albeit gorgeous staircase, Kitab Khana is a city favourite. It exudes an old-world charm that draws you in each time you walk past it. Running your eyes over the neatly arranged bookcases, filled to the brim, you will always find a soul or two lost in reading and little tots with parents in tow. It’s the mezzanine floor, though, that’s the perfect place to be. It’s home to the classics and regional literature – available in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Urdu – where you will be left to your own devices for as long as you want. If you’re the kind who desires a cup of coffee to go with your books, there is the Food for Thought Café on the ground level.
Wayword & Wise: A relatively new entrant to the city’s bookstore scene, Wayword & Wise completes the Fort trinity. Co-founded by Virat Chandhok of the erstwhile Lotus bookshop in Bandra, this bookstore is for the discerning reader, with curated picks and an author list most would be unfamiliar with. But then as Chandok says, “an exceptional bookstore stocks books that customers don’t yet know they want to read.” Walk in and you would agree. On my latest visit, I picked up The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, who the Pushkin Press says is Finland’s best kept literary secret. I’m yet to find out, but it comes highly recommended by Chandok. Go over and let this gentleman surprise and delight you with author names you can’t pronounce correctly. You will come back richer, in a way, but with a much lighter wallet.
Trilogy: Trilogy, a library/bookstore in Raghuvanshi Mills is a lovely place to hang out or run into fellow bibliophiles. You will find two for sure: Ahalya and Meethil Momaya, whose labour of love this is. For World Book Day 2017, the space was brimming with lovely, colourful post-it notes across the aisles with short book reviews they asked their patrons to write. It’s these little things that stick. It’s again a highly curated enterprise, with the library staking more claim to the space than the bookstore. Many of the books, in fact, are for reference only, to be read at the library itself. But with such a rich array of names for company, there’s nothing to complain about.
Kahani Tree: A unique little bookstore in Prabhadevi, this one is exclusively for the kids. The moment you walk in, you’re surrounded by Indian authors and stories that go beyond traditional mythology. It’s still not that common to find contemporary children’s tales in Indian voices, but at Kahani Tree you will find them in various languages – English, Hindi, bilingual and more. You also have, of course, Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, and other beloved international names in the inner section. There are Kahani Tree recommendations to help you along, but you can always reach out to founder Sangeeta Bhansali. Also, don’t miss out on the place mats and wonderful maps they stock.
Granth: A stone’s throw from Juhu beach is Granth with its excellent hardbound collection: the kind you would want to take back home, put at the centre of your bookcase, and hand down to your next of kin. If they’re too expensive, you can always browse through these beauties, gazing out the window, with a cup of coffee in hand. Or walk upstairs and enjoy the artwork of the little ones. The upper floor is entirely dedicated to children, as are the chalks and boards. Actually, I’m not sure if you can lay your hands on the chalk. Find out and let me know?
An edited version of this story was published on The City Story