From the first push of the morning alarm, to the daily pressures sandwiched between meeting deadlines and other unmanageable expectations; there is very little time to comprehend the world around us while having to keep up with it. Set in these times, reading has seemingly acquired another meaning as well. Hardbound editions and paperbacks are competing with audio books, kindle sales, and unfortunately Instagram reels (or #bookstagrams as they are often called) and other forms of media that allow for instant (and more instant) consumption.

Studies from The New York Times, El Pais and other dailies have confirmed that compared to 2011, the average length of a book has been reduced by 51.5 pages in 2021. Much worse, books of more than 400 pages are less likely to gain readership and may fall back in the race to be identified as potential best-sellers. In India, currently with the world’s largest population, iconic bookstores are either shutting down entirely due to financial constraints or attempting to re-open with limited guarantees to sustain.

In these circumstances, reading is heavily influenced by the business of publishing and selling books, with infamous trending peaks and algorithms triumphing over curiosity. This is detrimental to narratives that fall outside the temporal focus on what is “sexy” at a particular moment.

It was against this backdrop that I documented the journeys of three bookshops around the world and their founders, who continue to preserve bookstores as an evergreen passion set against the shrinking spaces for reading. For them, bookstores of the present are preserving histories – from the simple act of smelling the book binds, to holding on to that special edition which is no longer mass-printed.

Wilborada 1047 Casa Libreria in Bogota, Colombia

After nearly 30 years as an assistant engineer, Yolanda Auza opted for early retirement to pursue her passion which took the form of, what we know as the Wilborada 1047 bookstore. “I wrote a letter to the corporation I was working for, that in one and half years, I shall retire. My goal was to continue life passionately, probably in a different kind of occupation – where I could learn every day, talk to new people, but also to pursue a business without the stress,” she said.

So, what led her to transition into the world of books? Yolanda says simply, “My main hobby has always been reading; educated reading to be precise. I always wanted to have a book with me. Since I knew nothing about the business of bookstores, I started visiting bookstores and meeting people in a professional capacity, to materialise my plan. Looking back, it feels like those were the initial baby steps, with each step making the idea more real…”

Although risking to sound anti-climactic, knowing the charm and success of Wilborada as it stands today, did everything fall into place for Yolanda? She confirms, but also shares an interesting anecdote. “In 2013, I seriously started looking for a place to house my bookstore. I bought this place, which was, at that time, nestled in a business area and almost uneventful during weekends…It meant that the idea of starting a bookstore had to be promoted proactively to garner an audience. But what clicked for me, that ‘eureka’ moment, was the history behind house number 1047. It led me to St Wiborada – the first woman who was formally canonised by the Church on May 2, 1047, also known as the patron saint of booksellers, libraries, and librarians. Her name was misspelled the first time and I took it as a divine sign and kept it that way…”

If one visits the bookstore today, there is indeed a magical air about it – from its English-styled architecture and the reference to the Middle Ages to the smallest of details. In fact, the bookstore opens for most days at 10:47 and closes by 19:47 – a poetic way to keep alive the spirit of protecting books. Yolanda remarks, “Initially, when I expressed my plan to open a bookstore to the people I know, everyone said that I was crazy; that nobody reads books, that it would be a dying business…Somewhere I wanted to reinstate some reference to the Middle Ages where people took care of books, protected and shared knowledge as part of their culture, with a sense of service and voluntariness (“casa de la servitude”). Inspired by the patron saint, Wilborada 1047 which started in 2014, continues to stand in times when we see the book sector being threatened.”

Wilborada 1047. Picture credits: Arpita Mitra.

Homer Kitabevi in Istanbul, Turkey

For Aysen Boylu, an archaeology student, the need for international books and publications set her on the path to creating the bookstore Homer Kitabevi, presently bookmarked between the Galatasaray Square in Istanbul, Turkey. Aysen shared, “It was 1995, the demand for English books was felt and businesses like Amazon had not set foot in Turkey. The only shop at that time had a very limited collection of books sold at a high price in an environment when the country was very poor overall and affected by the conflicts of that time.” Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the tensions between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party seeped into the daily lives of the common man.

She continued, “At that time, I was a student of archaeology and working on the side with the Ministry of Culture and Conservation. After six or seven years of managing the two, I finally decided to focus solely on the bookstore. The target was simple – to supply to people like me and address their needs for internationally-based publishers within Turkey while being in touch with my passion for urban archaeology. The name – Homer Kitabevi – came from ‘Homeros’ as I believed Homer was easier for people to relate to, as it appeals to all humanities. The bookstore was also an opportunity to preserve Turkish titles alongside international titles, and overall claim the process of sharing books without having to pay expensive shipping costs from other countries. The whole process became ours, and that was encouraging.”

Aysen took me through the brief journey of how Homer Kitabevi evolved. “When I started, the bookstore was meant for a Turkish audience only. With time, the region and the surroundings of the bookstore started to matter, as we saw many incoming expats. I slowly changed the direction of the team to an international readership.” However, what started at an artistic peak also suffered from challenges that came with changing times. Aysen talks about the events that also constrained the very existence of the bookstore: “Around 1999, I was taking care of 12 bookstores in total, including Homer Kitabevi, but also other stores offering university textbooks and a museum shop, both in Istanbul and Ankara. With time, the readership started to decline, as many other alternatives came to the scene. I saw with my own eyes, bookshops closing one after another, now leaving behind the University bookstore at Sabanci University and Homer Kitabevi. Then in 2003, the British Consulate in Istanbul was bombed, which further pushed many expatriates to go away. Sales went down. A decade later, the pandemic hit the existence of the bookstore too. These have been sad moments, but we soldier through with the changing times.”

Homer Kitabevi. Picture credits: Arpita Mitra.

Jazzhole Bookstore in Lagos, Nigeria

For Kunle Tejuoso, music and the passion for books have been in his DNA. “I grew up on books and music through my parents. My late dad was an architect, and my mother opened their first bookstore called Glendora in 1975. In fact, my dad collected music of all genres and had a fair-sized collection of records back then, while my mom was a voracious reader, gobbling them like two, three a week! I remember that my mother bought me my first record player when I was about nine years old, and I have been collecting records since then.”

With time, childhood memories, routine and nostalgia gave way to opening a bookstore with music at its core. Kunle said, “The idea of Jazzhole was to create a space that could serve not only creative souls, but also professionals such as myself and my buddy Wale, as we are both engineers…” With a Master’s in Electrical Engineering from the New York University in 1988, Kunle soon turned to new waves in his life as he opened Jazzole in 1991 with his friend Wale Oki. “We were both Jazz buffs then and we still are”, Kunle recalls, “As a matter of fact, the idea was to start a music store that specialized in Jazz and African music with a solid book collection from Nigeria, Africa, and world cultures, and somehow encouraging a fusion, a dialogue between the two…” Soon after, Kunle and his wife Olatundun, expanded the space to incorporate a café in the late 1990s.

So, a music café with books. What is unique about Jazzhole? Kunle passionately answered, “While I grew up on books and music, Jazzhole found its origin way before the internet took over Nigeria. In fact, I have a full memory of a lot of books that were published locally and those that were imported, since my parents were involved in both. I remember travelling with them to book fairs, stationery, and toy fairs all over the world. Let’s say that I was drawn to bookstores and would seek local publishing houses even in my travels abroad. But the focus of many of these bookstores was not essentially black or African, but the world at large. In that sense, Jazzhole became a project of identity as well.”

The apparent “addiction” to books and the search for books, old and new, gives Jazzhole its exceptional flavour. At the heart of this initiative lies the intent to encourage knowledge that is open, wide and holds an identity that is inherently “home”. As such, Kunle continues to invest in a space that brings books that he thinks/feels would make a difference to his society.

What are these bookstores doing differently?

For Homer Kitabevi, what is contained in the bookstore is a direct reflection of the team’s engagement with their customers. Aysen said, “We have seen nearly 30 years of this bookstore and many episodes of crisis… Sometimes I even decided to quit, but I love to be with my customers. Speaking to them, sometimes you find different solutions.” She shares about the appreciation for Saturday sessions by the audience, particularly during the pandemic, which comprised well-known authors as guest speakers on topics such as archaeology, the culture of food, sociological perspectives. Further, the innovative idea of having a “blind date with the books” – putting on sale wrapped books, where the customers purchase a book based on the clues mentioned on its cover without knowing the book’s identity, has also been well received and garnered public attention. Aysen confirmed, “These efforts are innovative, but they are also creating a safe space of easy accessibility. Everyone loves the blind date with the books. It would be close to 10 years since we started it. Customers either buy these books for themselves or as a present for their beloved.”

For Yolanda, changing times also means a reflection on the guiding values of the bookstore. She said, “When I was in the IT business, my job needed full availability and disposition. Now it is different – I have a very good team I rely on, and I dedicate the time that I want. No more, no less. In doing so, I have gained ownership over my own sense of time, which is the best reward.” She further added, “In every business, you cannot do the same things every day, just because you are committed to it. Reviewing your business is important while clarifying your foundational values – building communities, nurturing open spaces, tolerance, and collective enjoyment of something… these shouldn’t change, no matter how much the market changes. Your values should remain intact.”

Yolanda is attuned to the changing trends in business, by meeting several customers and associations as well as gaining cultural and regional perspectives within Colombia. She added, “I am in a cultural world which invites different inputs and experiences. Sometimes, I attend cultural forums in places like Quibdo, La Guajira, where I meet cultural administrators who are pursuing projects reflective of their geographical realities, in their own heroic way and bringing forward narratives that are often unheard. Such experiences inspire me to maintain Wilborada as an empathic space, tolerant of divergent experiences and reflective of some of these lived realities of people across Colombia.”

As for Jazzhole, it was the addition of the café to the setting that elevated the bookstore to another level of experience. Kunle affirmed, “In the new space, we were able to have the coffee shop and performance space for music sessions, debates, book readings, discussions…so these elements fitted what we planned since inception. Jazzhole has evolved amidst the politics of the times, which only encourages us to bring relevant content and promote dialogue. Books – that we feel are necessary for the upliftment of the mind or to stir questions and discussion, especially among the youth, are important. While we were initially concerned about the emergence of audiobooks and similar platforms, over time, we have grown to realize that all reading platforms matter as long as we are well-accustomed to the book selection and have a good understanding of our customer base. And believe me, we do.”

What will stay the same

The physical aesthetics of a bookstore – be it the creaky staircases to the different shelves or the smell of book binds, are dear to most book lovers and possibly irreplaceable in the age of digital content. For the interviewees, these aspects of the bookstore will not change. Yolanda said, “At Wilborada, every part of the house is dedicated to one genre of literature – the sala is beside the café, and contains all books related to the “senses” – what I call sala de sentidos. Books range from music, art, coffee books, wine books, books that heighten your senses. I like the room with the sofas and furniture – it gives a homely feeling and a sense of safety and openness. I also like the poetry section that is upstairs, with a rocking chair overlooking the bookshelves. Then there is the view from the third floor. It depends on what each person is seeking, but the physical space caters to every emotion in that sense.”

Inside Wilborada 1047. Picture credits: Arpita Mitra

At Homer Kitabevi, Aysen is dedicated to conserve the essence of the physical bookstore – its three floors and the terrace, with the occasional greetings from street cats. Her dream is to inculcate a conversation with music that appeals to the senses, but she has yet to determine what that would look like. As for Jazzhole, which seems to operate ahead of its times, Kunle highlights their intentions of “staying relevant by taking the digital space more seriously”.

Overall, some of these bookstores continue to strive and flourish – due to the individual dreams and passions of their founders, but also their commitment to preserving bookstores in a digital era. In fact, overcoming the challenges of bookstores has brought innovative approaches to bring together the digital with the human, while reinstating experiences of open exchanges that combine the reader’s comfort and exploration.

Arpita Mitra is a doctoral candidate in Criminology at the Vrije University, Netherlands.