“Working here would be my dream job,” is something we often overhear at Champaca. In this blog, Shakti reflects on what bookstores offer us as a space, and what it is like to work at one!
“Working here would be my dream job,” is something we often overhear at Champaca. Many people who walk in have nurtured a dream to be the ‘bookshop person’ akin to Meg Ryan from You’ve Got Mail.
I did too. My fantasy was a mash-up of Meg Ryan who ran a cute little bookstore and Julia Roberts from Notting Hill who found love between the shelves. But my dream was unravelling in reverse. The original plan was to bump into my future partner at a bookstore, our interests in books aligning before the stars did. But the career came first, partner shortly afterwards and trotting behind was the cute golden retriever. All that remained was to become the founder of the perfect bookstore and spend the last few years of my fast-disappearing youth gushing about books to readers!
Dreams are pretty but balancing account books are not. I realised early on that I didn’t have the acumen for running my own business. So instead, I made it a habit to ambush independent bookstores every time I got the chance to travel, and bask in their goodness. During a family holiday to London, I even sneaked in a bit of me-time to run a bookshop for a day, on Airbnb. It gave me a taste of a life that I always envisaged: to be surrounded by books and to share my love of reading to those who came by.
But the dream refused to die down. Instead, it lingered and grew, gnawing at my heart. One random Tuesday afternoon last January, I succumbed to it. After putting to rest a decade-long career in teaching, I sat down to mail my favourite bookstore. Today, I sit amidst piles and piles of books, the canopy of an avocado tree, and inspiring company. For a person who judges people by their bookshelves, bookstores by their bestseller rack, and has no love for romance novels? (the irony!) it was love at first sight, the only kind I believed in.
How does one define a bookstore? Rooms full of books? An adda for conversation? A comfortable nook for quiet? Often when I am in the store, prattling away on the laptop, I pause occasionally to look up from the screen and gaze at others. The reasons I love a bookstore are many, but one among them is the immense people-watching potential it offers.
My work at Champaca has shown me that a bookstore is about more than just books: it is a sanctuary. Today, I pause my work to make a quick list. It is a place for:
- A cat who quietly traipses through the shelves and settles down for a nap on the top of the international history shelf.
- Many first dates and a few last ones.
- Students studying. Students writing notes. An escape from the din and dinginess of hostel rooms.
- A haven for those who are tired of fighting battles every day, with themselves and society.
- A travelling musician who puts his book down and poses for selfies.
- The unravelling of an extramarital affair.
- An influencer who is spotted browsing the shelves, perhaps wanting a quiet moment away from the overkill of the internet.
- Artists who are busy sketching.
- Writers in the making, putting their craft together, one word, one sentence at a time.
- Daydreamers seeking and finding inspiration.
- Readers who fall headlong into a paragraph and do not surface for a while.
- New mothers and their newly minted babies who want a respite from each other.
- Mothers with their legs outstretched on the library floor.
- Babies savouring a bite of a board book.
- A couple catching up on reading before catching a flight, after trudging luggage up the stairs.
- A rookie director’s soothing script narration.
- The warm hugs of friends meeting after aeons.
- The overwhelmed boyfriend hunting for the perfect book, something that his partner hasn’t read.
- The patience of bookstagrammers — waiting for the perfect display picture while perched on the ladder.
- The nonchalant author who strolls in browses, and leaves, with a handwritten note at the counter.
While we continue to live our You’ve Got Mail fantasy through Champaca, there is a question that begs to be asked. Do you think Kathleen (Meg Ryan) is happy now? She shut her store and found love, but for love did she have to shut her store?
In a jungle of Amazons, aren’t we all glad that we have a Champaca? :)
If you are curious about the lives of booksellers, I have put together some books that will give you a glimpse.
The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell
From the oldest bookshop in the world to the smallest you could imagine, this book examines the history of books, talks to authors about their favourite places, and looks at over three hundred weirdly wonderful bookshops across six continents.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Imagine you are the owner of a bookstore and you are having a hard time, the business is failing and you suspect that someone is stealing your prized first editions. Just when you think things can’t get any better, you find a baby outside your door. What do you do?
Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink
This is a moving, funny and joyous exploration of how books can change the course of your life, packed with recommendations from one reader to another.
This is the canon: Decolonise Your Bookshelves in 50 Books by Joan Anim-Addo, Deirdre Osborne, Kadija Sesay
This book disrupts the all-too-often white-dominated 'required reading' collections that have become the accepted norm and highlights powerful voices and cultural perspectives that demand a place on our shelves.
If you love picture books, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Norris Lessmore by William Joyce is a modern masterpiece, showing that in today’s world of traditional books, eBooks, and apps, it’s the power of story that we truly celebrate.
PS: In case you are curious about my experience, you can read about it here.