Yesterday, I encountered a deeply unfamiliar sight. The erstwhile-stacked shelves were sporadically empty, revealing for the first time the wooden frames that ensconced every inch of vertical space at the iconic bookstore, Fact and Fiction in New Delhi. Books were flying off the shelf at half their prices – a sight that on any other day would have been cause for a celebratory wink to the man who has for decades graced the seat behind the billing counter. Unfortunately, this was a wake – Fact and Fiction, like many novelty bookstores across the world, was shutting shop. The half-price sale, a first in the bookstore's history, was actually a goodbye.
The Unique Quality of Independent Bookstores
The demise of a bookstore is an event with staggering implications. But the demise of Fact and Fiction signals a different set of concerns. What is not at stake is the downfall of the culture of reading, which is in danger of being eclipsed by the growing popularity and reach of mixed media, or the loss of fetishism and ownership that underlie the pursuit of commodities.
What is instead at stake in shutting of the store is the erasure of the bookseller as connoisseur. Bookstores are of many kinds, driven by a variety of principles and catering to varying interests. Not all bookstores are shutting down. Bookstores like Fact and Fiction are emblematic of distinction: the bookseller is not merely the purveyor of “hot selling” and “bestseller” books. The bookseller employs the principle of selection, of curating rarities, oddities and in that measure, the triumphs of literary endeavors.
Unlike bookstores that are part of retail chains, independent bookshops do not display or abundantly stack the hot-sellers. You will spot the trending books ignominiously placed next to their lesser-known counterparts. More surprisingly, you will find inches of prime space devoted to names and titles that are largely over-shadowed by literary “phenomenon” and prize-winners.
The Principle of Selection
From my loot at Fact and Fiction over the years, there is a copy of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Quartet, Joe Sacco's Journalism, Emile Zola's The Dream and Baudelaire's Paris Spleen, to name a few. That such a panoramic range can be housed in a small, crammed space is astounding. From Deleuze's On Cinema to Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence – Fact and Fiction offered it all. It is where I discovered Margaret Lawrence and Robertson Davies, forerunners of Canadian literary revolution, the voice of whom would echo in the more popular works of Atwood and Munro.
The loss of a bookstore that guides you through the dark alleys of literary works, through names and titles that are teeming with insight but have not gained widespread recognition, cannot be compounded. It is the loss of a voice, of a store that is more than a space for sale and purchase. In his essay, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin reminds us of one of the key passions of book collecting – the mood of anticipation. It was this sense of anticipation, of opening oneself to the all possibilities that was aroused in independent bookstores. The sense of “discovering” was crucial to the experience of buying books. The bookstore was an entity with life, possessing the element of surprise.
Presence of the Personal Touch
To that end, Fact and Fiction did not disappoint. As I stood with empty pockets and a sickly feeling that graces all farewells, my hands struggling to grasp bags filled with books, Mr. Singh, owner of the bookstore, graciously held out a slice of cake: the store's final offering to its last customers.
Delightful till the end.