The Neighbourhood Bookstore

A labyrinth installation titled “aMAZEme” by Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo

By Faisal Bari

WE were new to Manhattan, and due to my wife’s health, were not allowed to go to crowded and enclosed spaces like theatres and restaurants. So, for the first two years of our time in New York, almost daily, we would meet at a bookshop that was halfway between my place of work and our apartment. My wife would walk there around five in the evening and I would join her as soon as work wrapped up. We would browse through books, sometimes buy one that we liked and at other times select jigsaw puzzles. My wife would mull over calendars, notebooks and other stationery she thought I should buy and we would spend quite a bit of time in the large and well-lit adjacent café just chatting or looking at other people chatting and reading and browsing through magazines which the bookshop was kind enough to allow café users to read. The bookshop was a part of our lives, our day. And what a blessing it was. It was an island of wonders. Both of us looked forward to being there in the evenings. The large stacks of books that we have piled up in the windows of our small apartment are a lovely memory of the many evenings spent there.

Sometimes, for a change, we would meet at another bookshop. This one was a bit further away. But it was in a nice mall with a lot of other shops as well. Over the two years we must have spent countless hours at these two places and it gave us an opportunity, unprecedented for both of us, to read very widely, browse even more widely and to fall in love with subjects and authors we had not before heard of. People can browse Amazon and online collections, I know, and we do it too. But the joy of browsing through a library or a well-stocked bookshop, with the ability to touch and smell, is of a different kind. We did not have a library nearby, but for us these two bookshops were not very different from what a library would have been.

The first bookshop had an entire section on New York, with a large sub-section on Manhattan. We got to know of many places of interest, restaurants and cafés by browsing through these books. The history of the city, with its waves of immigrants and construction of Manhattan is quite fascinating, and what makes it unique, not only in North America but across the globe. Where should one go for the best bagel, the best ice cream, or the best halal shawarma; it was all there. For me, reading about cities was a new experience and an acquired taste.

And then, over a period of about six months, both these stores closed down. The first because the rent of the location became unaffordable and the other because the entire chain went into liquidation. A clothing store has opened up in the place of the first store. While it is famous for the discounts it offers on well-known clothing brands, we must have been there twice at most. It just does not feel right to go into that space and not have books around. In fact, the closure of the bookstores has altered our walk habits. The nearest bookstore is now quite a distance away and we cannot walk there everyday. And what deprivation this has been! I returned to New York from a trip and for the next couple of weeks we could not visit a bookstore and I felt lost. It felt as if I had forgotten to do something important; things felt a bit out of kilter, out of step.

And it was not just the two of us who had been regulars at these shops. They were busy almost around the clock. And we are not the only ones who have felt the change. The tone of the neighbourhood has changed due to their closure. A bookseller who has had a stall selling books for the last many years in a nearby street put it well in an interview: people think it is good for his business if the bookstores close, he says. But irrespective of that, it is sad that it happened. The entire neighbourhood is a little poorer now.

Buying books online has also dented the business of bookshops hugely, as iPads, Kindles and other e-readers make carrying and accessing books, especially when travelling, so much easier. Also, independent bookshops have lost a lot of ground to chain stores, especially in the more developed countries. But, old fashioned or not, there is still something special about holding a ‘real’ book in one’s hand, browsing through a room full of books, and chatting with booksellers who know about authors and books. It is not until recently that I realised how bookshops shape places and moods of entire areas, how they shape lives. A lesson learnt.

From Books and Authors, the Dawn, Pakistan, Sunday October 7th, 2012.

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One thought on “The Neighbourhood Bookstore

  1. Faisal what a touching narrative. I was introduced to the world of old book shops at Chapel Hill. The culture was addictive and I can empathize with your loss.

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