BOOKSHOP LOVE

Pune’s Sophia Book Store: The bookshop with heart that could (so it did) become successful

Surekha Sharma started her bookshop against all odds, with just 10 used books.

Tucked away in an inconspicuous bylane in Pune’s affluent Koregaon Park area, 63-year-old Surekha Sharma’s Sophia Book Store attracts a steady clip of visitors hailing from various parts of the world. The store is a small refurbished room, in which books in over 14 languages, including German, Japanese, Swedish, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, Hebrew, Persian, Russian, and Italian, are arranged with meticulous attention to detail. The unobtrusive book store is like an idealised United Nations, with a French translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude sitting in cosy harmony beside a Hebrew translation of VS Naipaul’s travelogues.

Sophia’s Book Store owes the diversity of its collection to its proximity to the Osho International Meditation Resort, which is located less than a kilometer away. “Foreigners who come to visit the Osho Ashram cannot sleep without reading,” Sharma said. “And it is because of them that my bookstore has worked.” Japanese, German and Swedish books sell very quickly from her store, although very few customers buy Hindi books.

“If it would have been only Indians around here, my bookstore would have never done so well,” Sharma said. “I don’t blame Indians, because we don’t have the money for books. I never had the money, so I sought out libraries. But foreigners can afford a reading habit.”

Sharma accepts used books from her customers, and sells them for anywhere between Rs 80 and Rs 250, passing on half the price to the original owner after she makes a sale. She also allows readers to borrow used books at half-price. Although Sharma cannot read all the languages represented in her bookshop, she has learned to recognise the books she would prefer to stock. “I began my business very innocently, and I still run it that way. I ask the people giving me the book what it is about,” she said. “I think the only reason this place has worked is because I absolutely love books. I want to know more about books. So if a customer doesn’t give me a satisfactory explanation about a book, I put it aside and ask other visitors.”

Has she christened the establishment Sophia Book Store because she hopes that the name will make it more accessible to foreigners? “When I got married, I used to wear skirts and blouses and tie my hair back into a ponytail. My husband said that I look like a Christian, and he called me Sophia as a joke. The name stuck,” she said.

The story behind the store

Sharma had dreamed of opening a book store since she was a young woman. “When I finished my BA, I was told by my father and brother that I should not work,” she said. “I asked them if I could start a library of my own, but they refused that as well.”

But Sharma’s love for books and her desire to run a bookstore only grew with time. “My aunt took me to a beautiful library in Bombay soon after I completed my education. It had shelves covered by glass panels to protect the books from dust. I was awestruck. I had never seen such luxury before. I thought that my book store would be like that.”

She eventually began to work as a typist after her father died, but had to quit the job when she got married. “I was reading Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay at the time and I was tremendously affected by it. And I thought, if it is giving me so much joy, I would like to share it with others. I firmly decided to open a bookshop at some time in the future. I thought that if nothing else, I would start giving books free to people in my village. And that was a lofty dream for someone who had no money.”

When she was forced to move to Goa with her husband owing to financial difficulties, Sharma worked in a bookstore to learn the intricacies of the business. “The couple running the store was not very well-informed, and I would help them with everything. Later, my husband and I returned to Pune, and that’s when I decided I was ready to finally start a bookshop.”

In the summer of 1994, Sharma borrowed some money from her mother and sister-in-law and started Sophia’s Book Store with 10 of her husband’s used books. “I thought that if this didn’t work, I would sell my jewellery and repay their money. But this little shop worked and I returned their money within a month. Some of my family refused to lend me any money because they thought it was ridiculous to invest ten or twenty thousand rupees in a used bookstore. They said they would buy me gold if I needed, but wouldn’t give me the money for my shop. They lectured me about the stupidity of my venture, but I just heard them out and came home.”

Sharma said she owes her success to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. “A German woman visiting the [Osho] resort asked me if I could procure the book for her when it had just been released. I managed, and word spread among the people in the resort that I could get the book. Several people bought the book from me – I must have sold hundreds of copies.”

Foreigners also patronised the bookstore because it was being run by a woman, Sharma revealed. “All around the world, people feel that women are not treated well by men in India. A German customer was telling me that women in India tolerate a lot of their husband’s tantrums. I learned from these women to not remain dependent on my husband for my business needs.”

Surviving changing times

Several other bookstores operating in the area were forced to close after the advent of online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart, Sharma said. She feels that her bookstore might have survived because she stocks used books at affordable rates. “One of my customers said that her landlord has told her that he would not accept any parcels or letters on her behalf, and she can’t always be home when the parcels arrive,” Sharma said. “Also, Amazon does not take books back if you want to return them after you’re done reading them. I do. And delivery is not always free, so that helps as well.”

Sharma said that she has learned a lot from the people who visit her shop. “I don’t know why my little shop became such a big success. I feel it is a miracle. Now I don’t need the money. But I am in love with this place and I learn so much every day from readers across the world. I won’t shut this shop as long as I am capable of running it.”

She hopes that her shop can become a space where readers can relax. “I just want people to feel like staying on in my bookshop for a few minutes. They need not give me business. But whoever comes to me should feel happy in my bookshop,” she said.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.