Three years ago, the publishers Left Word Books founded a unique left-wing niche bookstore and pay-what-you-like café in New Delhi. It was named the May Day Bookstore and Café after the day of its official launch, May 1, which is celebrated as International Workers’ Day the world over. It was started in conjunction with Studio Safdar, a performance space adjacent to the bookstore, by the renowned leftist performance group Jana Natya Manch.

Its political focus is not the only remarkable thing about the bookstore. Unlike other independent and chain bookstores which dot the south of the city, May Day is located in Shadi Khampur in west Delhi. “It is an absolutely ridiculous thing to do. Business-wise, it was a stupid idea to move here,” chuckles director Sudhanva Deshpande, “but we wanted to do it, and it has been amazing.”

Community Space

In the last three years, life at May Day has become intentionally linked with its surroundings.  True to its founding principles, it is not meant to be an island, but a community space.  Thus, plans are afoot to set up a kids’ library this summer, after repeated demands by children from the neighbourhood.

Local rickshaw wallahs who regularly bring visitors from the Shadipur metro station to the bookstore, identified by its address as “bayaasi number”, are invited to all Hindi plays that are performed at Studio Safdar. No entry prices are charged, and if the play doesn’t appeal to them, they can walk out any time without question. They can also walk in at any time of day to fill their water bottles, which is helpful during the punishing Delhi summer.

The residents of the nearby Kathputli Colony, which is the largest settlement of traditional performance artists in the world, receive not just a space to regularly perform, but also a free meeting place to discuss the impending peril of displacement that they are faced with. This May Day, a group of young musicians called the KPC Rockers will represent the colony at the bookstore.

Originally, another talented group from the neighbourhood, The Clapper Boys, were supposed to perform, but they have been selected to go to Mumbai and feature on the reality show India’s Got Talent. The Clapper Boys have performed many times in the space, which is remarkable considering that the performers of the Colony are struggling to find places where they are allowed to and welcome to perform.

It is not just local communities that May Day seeks to welcome, but also local small business.  Thus, whatever is needed to run the café is locally sourced as far as possible. When this cannot happen – for example, with the coffee – it is sourced from a small business that gets its coffee directly from plantations in Coorg. Visitors to the bookstore visit the small dairy next door for cups of refreshing lassi. When events take place, as they frequently do, the woman who makes the samosas, Rupa ji, is proudly introduced to attendees.

Accidental Discovery

This commitment to an ethical small business model is carried over into the books May Day sells, which include the left-wing canon in English, books in Hindi, children’s books, books on gender and caste politics and history, to name only a few categories.

But this is a process that has undergone transformation with time. What was in the beginning a strictly niche space has expanded to include generous quantities of used books of various kinds. Alongside books by Marx, Gramsci, and Galeano are little known works of speculative fiction, old journals on music and folklore, and even some campus romance novels. Some true treasures, such as a rare 1960s edition of the science fiction writer Robert Sheckley’s book Mindswap, are available at mind-bogglingly low prices.

The website has been overhauled in order to increase its load time and internal processes have been improved so that books can be shipped on the same day they are ordered. But the eventual plan for the website is to provide a flavour for the kind of bookstore May Day already is – a space where one can discover books one didn’t know existed.

Deshpande calls this “the thrill of the accidental discovery”, and laments that this is an experience that is not available in a chain bookstore or an online marketplace. In a chain bookstore, the reader may not know exactly what can be had, but she will still have a pretty good idea of what kind of books she will be able to buy. An online bookstore is even worse, for it will only show her new suggestions based on her previous browsing and buying history.

May Day plans

Those in New Delhi on May 1 can attend the third anniversary of the bookstore, which will be celebrated between 3 pm and 8.30 pm at the premises in Shadi Khampur.  This year’s event is dedicated Sabeen Mahmud, the Pakistani human rights worker who was recently shot dead because of her work, and who ran a similar space, The Second Floor (T2F), in Karachi.

Here’s a full programme of what is in store, including snacks and many performances. Indian Ocean singer Raghu Ram has performed every year since May Day’s inception, and will be back this year too. There will be theatrical performances by Atelier, The Tadpole Repertory, Mallika Taneja, and the Space Theatre Ensemble. There will be tributes to other fallen comrades, Gunter Grass and Eduardo Galeano. If the performances and readings don’t draw you there, there is also a huge book sale. Buy, or just read.