Celebrating Booksellers : Curating Reading Lists

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Anuj Bahri, Priti Paul, Raman Shresta and Rick Simonson moderated by Arpita Das

 

By Sitamsini Cherukumalli, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger

 

‘If booksellers cannot connect with the reader, the whole industry cannot survive,’ Anuj Bahri, owner of the famous Bahrisons bookstore, told the audience today. Bahri argued for the importance of brick-and-mortar bookstores in our times, stating that there is a ‘real art in being a bookseller,’ that enables them to connect to the reader in a way that publishing houses and online stores cannot.

Priti Paul, owner of the Oxford Bookstores, who also manages a stand-alone bookstore in Marrakesh called Kathakali, spoke of the joys of connecting with a reader through curated reading lists, personal interactions and ‘selling the books with my own hands.’

Raman Shresta, of the renown Rachna Books in Gangtok, agreed. Shresta re-opened his family bookstore in 2001, thirteen years after it was forced to shut down following a decline in business. He observed that creating cultural spaces where people could be ‘sharing ideas and exchanges’ of dialogue was of great importance to him. Both Paul and Shresta invite other forms of culture into their bookstores: Paul has installed an alternative art gallery in the Oxford Bookstores, and Shresta has hosted a programme of artistic events, Word of Mouth, as well as Sikkim’s first film festival.

Rick Simonson, of the Elliot Bay Book Company, has nurtured and developed his bookstore into an iconic cultural locale since 1976. He spoke of ‘the moving nature’ of cultural spaces in fraught times, alluding to the election of Donald Trump. With ‘fundamental values at risk’, he said that bookstores can challenge the status quo by representing freedom of speech.

One of the biggest obstacles to the survival of bookstores – the mammoth online bookselling industry – was a frequent talking point. When one of the audience members asked why bookstores did not offer as many discounts as online booksellers like Amazon, Bahri (who had earlier jokingly suggested ‘strangling’ anyone who mentions Amazon), solemnly spoke of the ‘ongoing struggle’ with publishers ‘that is not going in our favour.’ Since it is down to publishers how discounts are calculated, it is out of booksellers’ hands, and Bahri ‘could not understand the logic behind publishers offering higher discounts to online bookstores.’

Simonson spoke of the turning tide that has seen the rise of independent bookstores in the United States over the last year, after many years of decline. He credited the younger owners stepping into the business of bookselling, ‘bringing new energies and ideas.’ He described their energy as ‘infectious’, saying he had changed from feeling like a victim to feeling ‘positive and constructive’ about the future of bookselling. Bahri agreed, proudly describing his floor manager, Mithilesh, who is so famous as a hands-on staff member that a local newspaper had done a full-page spread on him, entitled M is For Mithilesh.

 All the panelists stressed the importance of good staff managers in creating meaningful connections with readers. Paul spoke of the years of work that went in increasing the efficiency of her own bookstores, and emphatically agreed when Bahri talked of the time it takes to ‘cultivate that sort of culture’ that can create intellectually and emotionally open spaces in bookstores.

The session ended with a moving entreaty by the panelists to support local bookstores, and the importance of creating new strategies and ways to preserve these important spaces. There is no doubt that this will be a long and difficult journey, but, as Simonson said to applause, we need to ‘fight back to save these spaces.’

 

Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor

 

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