BOOKSHOP LOVE

My bookshop won’t tell you what people are reading: A bookseller’s lament as he waves goodbye

An interview with Ajit Vikram Singh, owner of Delhi’s beloved Fact & Fiction bookshop, which has announced its closure.

It is around five in the evening when I reach Fact & Fiction, one of New Delhi’s oldest independent bookstores, whose owner, Ajit Vikram Singh has announced his decision to shut shop. For every booklover in Delhi, it’s a time to mourn, however briefly.

There was a time when I too, like many others, used to frequent the bookshop, at times to buy books, and at others, when I ran out of money, to simply hang around and browse. Today, as I sit across the table from Singh, poking him with questions that he is probably tired of hearing and answering, I am amazed the irony of my own much-delayed visit. We have all delayed so much that the shop has to close down. Over to Singh.

Response to stimuli
“Running a bookshop is a very organic thing,” begins Singh, “you don’t stuff it full of books that you like. I started Fact & Fiction back in 1984 with very few books. When those books sold, I put more of the same kind on the shelf. It was a response to stimuli and that’s how it grows. You put the best books on the subject that works. This wasn’t the mix when I started – it kept changing over the years.

“It’s been a long time coming. I didn’t want to lose interest in books till the very end; I was still ordering books and I was still trying to stay engaged, I mean I can’t think of it as the end. It’s not a business, it’s my life. I’d hate to bid adieu but I don’t know, I don’t see any space, I don’t see any other avenue.

“The book trade doesn’t seem to want bookshops like ours. Since all these e-tailers have come in, the book trade has just gone their way. They’ve extended all support, all help to them, put all their focus on them, and they’ve just let booksellers like us be. Let this event be a reminder to the trade that they’ve got to include and support everyone the best way they can.

“After thirty years, I think it is bad news for me too. Earlier, going to the bookshop was a regular affair. Obviously things have changed over this period of time. But till the shutters come down, I’ll keep ordering books.”

I urge him to begin from the beginning.

Starting point
“I loved books and I wanted to do something with books. I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged reading. My father was an omnivorous reader. He read everything – from Batman comics to Chandrakanta, and from science fiction to philosophy. He was a great role model for me. My mother too was an avid reader and she read in Hindi.

“Buying books as a kid was one thing that I will always cherish. Personally, I went through several phases of reading. At times science fiction, other times occult, and a lot of non-fiction and history books too. People who start a bookshop think that they’ll spend all their time reading, but unfortunately, after being at the bookshop the whole day, when I go back home and pick up a book to read, I realise that sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”

Where do old books go?
“Books in India are cheaper than anywhere else in the world. If price was such a big concern and the readership was so motivated, why isn’t there a second-hand book trade in India? This is a question that I’ve been asking myself for so many years now.

“Real estate prices are higher in New York and London, but all of these cities have a very healthy and thriving second-hand book culture. Here, either the book goes to the pavement or to the rag-picker, or – worst case scenario – gets pulped. There is no system of retaining the books.

“I’m told Calcutta has a College Street, but it’s all largely textbooks, and same is the case with the Daryaganj market. From among a thousand books you might find a handful of classics or contemporary fiction or non-fiction. Basically, the reading culture is not there. The education system in India does not promote reading as a thing of enjoyment. Reading shouldn’t be an ordeal but maybe it’s made to appear so.

“The kinds of books most Indians are buying are either related to their professions, motivational books, or quick reads. Or they keep oscillating between the seven or ten most-hyped books. They don’t have the time to discover or pursue other books.”

What triggered the decline in demand?
“Some of it is because retail sale in the area (where Fact & Fiction is located) has suffered collectively. Many shops have shut down, so there’s a general decline because of this. Secondly, parking has become chaotic and people don’t like to come here. The Vasant Vihar area in itself has become very a problem because accessibility has become very limited thanks to the new flyovers. It’s a combination of a lot of reasons.

“The presence of e-tailing has really grown leaps and bounds in a short time. They’re now advertising on television and newspapers. They create this uncertainty in the market, so that you always feel that something is available at a cheaper price, even if it is not. The psychology has changed, as a retailer you don’t feel confident. Consumers may not get a discount here and they may not get a discount online as well, but the attitude is such that they’re always looking for that elusive lower price.”

Change in buying patterns
“One cannot make out the trend of what everybody else is reading by looking at my bookshop, because it has a slant towards certain kind of books and I’m attracting those kinds of people. I have nothing against the new crop of authors, clearly people are reading them and therefore they sell, but the unfortunate part is that they don’t lead you to reading something else, something better.

"For example, the good thing about the Harry Potter series was that people who read Harry Potter went on to read books by JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and a whole genre of such authors. It dispelled a myth that children can’t read 600-page books, that they’ve got Attention Deficiency Syndrome.

"These books elevated the genre of fantasy fiction, and I am truly grateful to the Harry Potter series for that. But a lot of these contemporary Indian authors don’t seem to be leading readers anywhere else. They don’t get you into the process of discovering other new writer or of going after something else. They have a fan following and they just make their readers wait for their own books.”

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