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An Afternoon at Champaca with Nirica Srinivasan

Guest Writer

Our guest writer, Nidhi Bhandari, speaks to Nirica about her experience working at one of Bengaluru’s most loved independent bookstores.

“I’ve been here almost since the beginning,” says Nirica, who joined Champaca in September of 2019 as an intern. “I worked as an intern for 3-4 months and then stayed on as an employee.”

 “We can sit anywhere you like,” she says gesturing toward the café, bookshelf, and children’s library that come together to create the experience of the bookstore. We choose finally, to sit in the cosy corner that is the children’s library, with its inviting green floor cushions and custom made bookshelf, which allows the children to look at the covers of books before picking them up. 

Birdsong echoes in the bookstore, sunlight streams in through the open roof and huge windows, which overlook an avocado tree. “We get a ton of bird visitors on this tree,” she says when talking about the space. “We do have to face a lot of rain issues, it’s not unexpected. Every rainy season a new leak emerges,” she laughs. “We have a full routine, we know exactly where to move everything around so no books are damaged. That is something you don’t expect generally being part of the day-to-day running of a bookstore.”

However, the space is not the only thing that makes Champaca so unique and beloved by book lovers in Bengaluru. Champaca is known for the emphasis they place on curation and making sure that underrepresented places, authors, sexualities, castes, genders get heard. “If you look at our shelves we make a conscious effort to make sure that at least 50% of our them are stocked with women authors. There are certain values that are at the forefront of all our curation. There are certain sections that we always have books in. For example we always have books in our Caste section, Feminist section, and Queer section. We also have a lot of translations both from India and internationally, but even in India there’s just so many languages that we don’t have access to, except in translation because we can’t speak them all.” 

Another interesting thing Champaca does is send out subscription boxes. For these they do something called ‘hypercuration’, as Nirica calls it. Every year a theme is picked, to explore through these boxes. The first one was sent out in 2020 during the pandemic. The theme that year was Translations.

 “The second year, the theme was Travel. We were thinking about how we were travelling through stories inwardly and were watching people travel, not out of choice or for a holiday but out of necessity, people who were migrating. So we decided to spend a year thinking about stories. How can we travel through time, through stories, inward? And think about it outside of the usual imagination of travel. The theme for this year is loneliness. Again, coming out of the pandemic, though we aren’t out yet, it’s still going on. We wanted to explore how it is both an alone experience and a collective experience. So we want to send out books that focus on different ways, in times of loneliness to make connections — with people, places, objects, through things like food, with a language barrier, with nature.”

“Some of the books you have on your shelves are so rare and not available in India, how difficult is it to get these, and what is the process like?”

“Some of the titles we’ve had for our subscriptions are not available in India so we have to import it from the UK. With these international publications, it’s just a matter of time and follow up. Another thing we put time and effort into is sourcing books from indie publishers, like Tara Books, Panther’s Paw, and just now we’ve got a big collection from Sahitya Akademi. We’ve made an effort to seek out indie publishers and to have a continued relationship with them because some of these books are really hard to get and so unique. So that is another aspect of curation.”

Long-winded conversations about books and exchanging book recommendations is one of Nirica’s favourite parts about working at a bookstore. “It’s the best when you are having a conversation with a customer and someone else also joins in, and everyone just starts recommending books to each other.” Building a community with books at its centre has always been a core goal of Champaca. They also host a book club which comes as a part of their subscription boxes. “We’ve had such lovely conversations as a part of it.” This is a community of not just readers but also writers, poets, artists. They’ve held online events where they’ve hosted acclaimed writer and essayist Roxane Gay, naturalist and cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty, and many more. In fact, author Mahesh Rao’s event at Champaca’s launch was what brought the bookstore on Nirica’s radar. She followed them and three months later when they called for interns she applied.

When asked about how she reads so much, she laughs, dimples appear on both her cheeks and her eyes sparkle from behind her big cat eye glasses. “ I’m always reading. I suppose though, reading personally and reading for the store are two different things, and of course reading for the subscription is a skill you have to pick up. I read a lot, that’s all I do in all my free time basically. So that’s always been easy for me. Reading for the store requires a different kind of reading. We cannot read everything on our shelves. Even if we pick 1/4th each we are not going to be able to do it. It’s a different skill, it’s like learning to pick up what you can get from a book, reading parts of it, or speed-reading or really intelligently looking for reviews and figuring out what we can get from that. For the subscription, that’s a much more careful level of reading. Some months we’ve read 15 books and we’ve picked one. It’s a much longer process and we plan for it very many months in advance. It’s a pretty focused effort.”

When I ask for recommendations she asks me to come along as she takes books from the shelves to show them to me. The ease with which she moves around betrays how well she knows the place. Murder mysteries and crime novels are favourites, particularly the ones that are more character driven, “that way even if you predict the plot, it doesn’t matter.” Tana French is one of her favourite authors. “I really love how atmospheric her books are.”

We walk across the store and she picks up City of Incident by Annie Zaidi. “I loved this, it was something I picked up because it came to the store. It’s her newest book… It's told in interlinked short stories, which is one of my favourite things. All the characters and the city itself are nameless; they interact with each other in these really really really subtle ways. It’s just really interesting how we impact other people.Who do you notice in your life? And who do you not?”

As we weave through the shelves, chiming in with “oh I love this, have you read this?”, “this book reminded me of another you spoke about”, the afternoon transforms and Champaca fulfils what it set out to do from the very beginning  bringing people together through books.


 

Nidhi Bhandari is currently a student of BA Communication Studies at Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting, and exploring the city.


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