By Devki Pande
Blossoms is a bookstore in Bangalore. One would miss it the first time they saw it. One of its outer walls is a vintage Otis scissor gate, a criss-crossed barred elevator door, the kind that you find in nascent apartment complexes. It has an English signage in red and its equivalent in Kannada in blue. The original store had begun as a two hundred square feet space, the size of a single car garage. In fourteen years, it has grown into three stories, measuring three thousand five hundred square feet. It seems as if it has expanded on adhoc tendencies with spaces cropping up whenever needed; as if it is a living, breathing entity with ephemeral boundaries.
“It is, in a manner.” I was told by a friend who had brought some of her used books to exchange and create a credit account. “Blossoms is primarily a second hand book store. Most of the books you buy have been owned by someone else.” She was exchanging “The Ultimate Fact Book” and “Flight: Essential Facts” for a copy of “The Known World”.
I first discovered Blossoms as a cavernous opening in the wall. It was a weekend in July, the time when the Bangalore sky roils and churns into itself. As I ran up the steps and entered it, my only thought was to escape the pouring rain. Shrugging off my jacket, I turned and caught my breath. I was standing at the entrance of a bookstore, and not the entertainment hybrid kind either. Today, a pure bookstore is so elusive; they are all becoming a combination of sports equipment, music and other paraphernalia, but this was one of those unadulterated, quaint kinds where one finds real gems. It was the kind of place where you’d expect ravens perched on bookshelves and flying out of cobwebs. The walls were a dirty cream, lined with wooden cases and containing books authored by people I hadn’t heard of. The centre had tables groaning under the weight of hardbacks and paperbacks. I had entered a different world- not of bestselling authors- but of obscure ones. Even the sound of the rain had vanished into the background. I picked up a book, opened its pages, and drank in the musty scent greedily-the last book I had read that had a smell like that was my grandmother’s copy of “Gone with the Wind”. This too, was a copy of the same book; except it dated back to 1964 and had ink smudged thumbprints on the sides.
The space was deserted, the counter empty; something that I was thankful for, because it gave me the opportunity to stroll and explore at my own leisure. One of the things about most bookstores, is that the people follow you through the aisles; a moment of respite and someone leaps out to provide assistance, making you jump out of your skin, not realizing that perhaps you stopped of your own accord, and not because of a moment of indecision. And even if it was indecision, isn’t that the enjoyable thing? To take a moment and think of what to choose, and the final choice reveals something about yourself, even though you don’t know it. This store seemed aware of it, as it was empty and yet it wasn’t. I walked past authors arranged haphazardly- Jeffery Archer, Ayn Rand, Irving Wallace, Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Today, a pure bookstore is so elusive; they are all becoming a combination of sports equipment, music and other paraphernalia, but this was one of those unadulterated, quaint kinds where one finds real gems
I moved up the staircase, past the soft-board holding announcements of poetry readings and musical nights. The space was divided with floor to ceiling cases. Collapsed piles of books hurdled themselves in the aisles, making it necessary for someone to slow down and reflect.
“I have all these copies on my Kindle”, I overheard a young woman telling her friend as she waved a hand over a shelf of Haruki Murakami. I spotted a 1997 contemporaries edition of Memoirs of the Geisha; the version with the grey cover and the vertical half of a Japanese lady eroding into the spine. There was a Tolkien lying next to it. It had been a while since I read him.
I picked up the book excitedly. There is something compelling about owning a book which has been physically read by others, as if part of their identity has been infused into the pages. This one did not have any reams of dedication, instead, it had a city name and a date scrawled into it with black gel. Mumbai, 1982. I discovered notes scribbled into the margins.
“Found anything yet?” I heard through a gap in the bookcase. I wasn’t the only one who had retreated into this haunt for shelter. There she was, a classmate, browsing through the classics section with a copy of “Dongri to Dubai” in her hands.
“What about that?” She pointed at the one I held, taking it from me and rifling through the pages.
“Oh, Lord of the Rings. I really should get around to reading it.” She said.
“You haven’t read it?”
“No, don’t read a lot of fiction. I should start, though ”, She continued to browse through the pages fiercely. I took it from her with some force.
“It’s old!” I said. “Look at it; you’re going to damage it!”
As I drifted through the bookstore, I wondered for the umpteenth time how people could find the heart to give their books away. In fact, before I stumbled upon this place , I had a disagreement with my family. They had wanted to give our books away, the collection we had spent seventeen years building. I was adamant that they would not, could not, even though I had spent the months preceding college finding online versions of the ones that I could not live without. Each one of them held stories, I argued; the Goosebumps novels were the ones that the tooth fairy left under my pillow, the Asterix and Obelix had been a carefully cultivated project with my father; the Twelve Tasks of Asterix hunted down painstakingly to complete the collection. The Mallory Towers series was special because it had been bound together improperly, with page 64 of the third book appearing after page 134 of the second; and we read them like that.
Each book absorbs something of the reader into it; I can hardly imagine anyone getting sentimental over an epub or a mobi format.
Nevertheless, Fact and Fiction, one of New Delhi’s most eclectic bookstores is closing because the virtual world is slowly taking over. But the magic of sifting through shelves and the serendipity of finding a gem is not one that can be replicated virtually. Some of my most cherished books have been discovered by chance.
“I think I’m going to buy this one.”, my classmate said.
“Are you taking that?”
“No. ” I said. I already had a digital copy of it. A kindle could not compare to a real book, but the memories that lay with this one were not mine. The rain had stopped brewing by then, pedestrians were ducking out of shrubbery and cigarette stalls. I walked to the stairs, waiting for her to complete her purchase. The sky was still grey. She came down the steps, holding two packets. She gave me one.
“I didn’t buy anything.” I said.
“I know you didn’t.”, she said, puzzled as well. “He said something about a sale and getting a book– or was it an account? Said perhaps you’d like this one. I didn’t understand him completely though.”
“I think there has been a misunderstanding.”, I replied, and taking the packet from her hands, made my way up the stairs. As I did, I happened to glance inside, and stopped. It was the Tolkien that I had wished for. I took it out and glanced at the counter. It was empty. The man had left; leaving no imprint of his presence. But just before I turned back to mull over things, I could have sworn something winked at me behind a bookcase; a twinkling of eyes, a slight shine in the dimness. My friend shrugged at me as I came down the stairs, the packet still clasped between my palms. She nodded at it and then gave me a questioning look.
“Nothing.”, I said, putting the packet inside my bag, and zipping it up firmly. “Let’s leave.”
Devki is a student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. She worked at Contract Advertising Ltd, Essel Vision Productions Ltd and has also developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures as well.