A bookshop-owner’s love letter to her bookshop

“Like hospitals and universities, we need bookshops. In every neighbourhood”

I run a bookshop. It is not really a bookshop in conventional terms. I like to think of it as a book-shack.

I think I always wanted to work in a bookshop. Always had a thing for tiny bookshops crammed with books. I always thought bookshops are magical places.

When Akshaya Rautaray and I started Walking BookFairs, there was no “shop” for our books, so to speak. We displayed books on pavements, on the streets, for everybody to look at. We wanted everybody to experience the magic of a book.

The street, the pavement, the footpath, the bus-stop, the shade of the tree, became our shop. We loved our sadak-chhap bookshop. People seemed to love it too. Our books were for everybody – the farmer, the tea-seller, the fruit vendor, the college student, the teacher, the lawyer, and the rickshaw-puller.

There were two reasons for having books on the street. One, we wanted to make books accessible to everybody regardless of class and social background. We wanted to bring books out in the open for the common man. Two, we could not afford a shop space.

When we wanted to go to more places with books, we got a second-hand van and travelled to places. Initially we carried books in boxes in the van and displayed them on the street but later we built a bookshelf in the van.

We wanted to rent a small space for opening a bookshop in Bhubaneswar, but everything was very expensive. We finally rented a tiny corner of an open-air restaurant and that was the beginning of our book-shack. We had a hand painted bookshelf with all our books and some chairs for people to sit and read, and some potted plants.

Our books were still out in the open, for everybody to see, touch, and experience. But we had a problem – rain. We had to move out.

Luckily, we found an affordable space for our book shack. We wanted some greenery around. We grew a small garden. We had no electricity so we got solar power. We filled our tiny shack with all kinds of interesting books.

We thought of all the different kinds of people who might walk in and all the different kinds of books that they might like to read. We wanted people to read good books and not just popular books. We wanted our visitors to have a comfortable time browsing through books, so we put in chairs and cushions for them.

We thought books in the middle of a garden are almost therapeutic and filled our space with plants. In no time we had butterflies, sparrows, and squirrels for company. We wanted booklovers to have a chance to meet and talk to authors, so we talked to some of our writer friends, who obliged. We wanted young people to be interested in reading, so we tried to make reading fun.

At each stage my bookshop was my dream bookshop because I was doing exactly what I wanted, to connect books with readers. It does not matter what shape or size a bookshop is. What matters is that there exists such a magical place, with stories from lands far and near.

But sometimes it gets very difficult to run a bookshop. When we started out, we had difficulty sourcing books. Publishers do not deal with bookshops directly. Distributors control the market. Very few people are reading books. Most people are buying books online. Nobody is promoting good writing or good books.

We were lucky that we got to work with wonderful people from the book industry who supported us in our journey so far. But somehow at the end of the day it is about the number of books sold. There are days when nobody walks into our book shack. We don’t sell even a single book for days.

But we have to remember that a book is not a commodity. It is not always about the number of copies sold. Though our book shack is our only source of livelihood, we do not run it only for profit’s sake. We believe books are a powerful medium of social change and it is our responsibility to promote reading of good books and make books more accessible to all segments of the society.

A bookshop is not just a place where people come to buy books. A bookshop is a creative space which nurtures free thinking and free expression of the individual. A bookshop is a space where ideas get exchanged. A bookshop is essential for the existence of a healthy society and a healthy democracy.

As a bookseller I think my dream bookshop will be a space where people come to meet, talk, read, sing, laugh, cry and create together. Where authors don’t come in just for “events” but to openly talk about the society we live in and the people that we are. Where we can have good books at affordable prices. Where people can come and read for free if they cannot pay. Where we let our insecurities go. Where we let our masks fall. Where we can truly be ourselves and realise our true potential.

Like hospitals and universities, we need bookshops. We need bookshops in every neighbourhood. Publishers, authors, distributors and readers have to come together to support independent bookshops stay alive. So that bookshops in return can help us stay alive.

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