Monday, October 09, 2006

The Lure of the Independents

Johan Jaafar described every literary buff''s bookshop fantasy (well certainly mine!) in the New Straits Times on Saturday:
Back in 1988, I visited a small bookshop in New Delhi. I was browsing through a remarkable collection of Indian classics when a gentleman appeared. Since we were confined to a small space we had no choice but to acknowledge each other’s presence.

We talked about a book I was holding, the Bhagavad Gita — probably one of the best known war treatises in the history of mankind. I told him of my interest in the Mahabharata and how it went through a magnificent "local colouring" in my country.

Before he left he took out a book and gave it to me, The Golden Gate, which he signed. "My last copy, not in pristine condition I’m afraid, but since you can’t get it here, I’ll let you have it," he said.
It was of course Vikram Seth.

The Golden Gate is an incredible work (imagine this a whole novel written in sonnets!) I didn't know though that:
It was inspired in part by Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Legend has it that he found the copy at a second-hand bookstore in Stanford. That discovery changed his life forever. He chose to be a writer rather than an academic. See what a bookshop can do to a person?
This leads him to reminisce about other bookshop encounters both abroad:
... I was in Paris in 1997 when I came across the Shakespeare and Company bookshop (left) across the Seine from the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was not the original bookshop of the same name started by Sylvia Beach in 1919. That shop became famous for it was the meeting place for English- speaking expatriates and lovers of English books, not to mention the place where Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and John F. Fitzgerald spent hours. In the world of Francophiles, Shakespeare and Company was the symbol of all things English. Beach died in 1962 but the name was retained by another bookshop.

It is cramped, cold, even stuffy, with books spilling into narrow corridors and whatever spaces available, but it was where the "real books" were. Unlike modern book stores that are well-lighted and better arranged, this place reminds you of penniless authors and unpretentious scholars lingering with only one purpose in mind — to immerse themselves in the world of books.

And then there is the City Lights of San Francisco. It was co-founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and became the first in the United States to concentrate on paperbacks. The best thing about the bookshop is its unusual triangular structure.
... and nearer home:
I grew up in a village in Johor, 35km from the nearest town, Muar. There was no bookshop in the village. Whenever my father went to Muar I accompanied him. He would spend his time having teh tarik at his favourite mamak shop facing the Muar River. I was left to hang around at Kedai Buku Manap. What an experience it was. I was surrounded by books of all shapes and sizes. In my kampung, I read The Thirty Nine Steps and King Solomon’s Mines over and over again, for those were the only English books I had. At Kedai Buku Manap, there were few English books, none that I could afford anyway, but there were books published by Sinaran Brothers of Penang and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. The best my father could do was to buy me a comic book.
He singles out those two little independent bookshops for praise:
I am more of the "Silverfish kind" – I am referring to the little bookshop in Bangsar the size of a convenience store, next to a famous eatery. Silverfish is unpretentious, it is a booklovers haven, and more importantly it offers the feel of familiarity that has eluded the bigger chains. ... Silverfish, which belongs to Raman Krishnan, is also a respectable publisher. Or I would prefer my friend’s little hideout — Thor Kah Hoong’s Skoob Books. Hideout, I say? It is hidden somewhere in the bowels of the tallest building in Old Petaling Jaya. Sadly, you will find a lobby with unoccupied shoplots, a hair salon and a snooker parlour before you come across this gem of a bookshop. Thor, the former journalist, is also an actor and playwright. His books are old and new, expensive and cheap, but like any small independent bookshop, it has the smell of genuineness.
I would so love to visit Shakespeare and Co. especially since reading Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs (which I've not told you about yet, have I?) and City Lights of course.

Independent bookshops are idiosyncratic and fun ... you never know what you'll find, who you'll bump into and just how grouchy or chatty the owner might be.

One of the delights of travelling is to seek them out independent bookshops in whichever country you find yourself. (There is such a phonomena as "bookshop tourism" you know!) Trouble is that the "personal touch" usually leads to more recommendations ... leads to more book buying ... leads to more penury!

Related Posts:

Skoob is Books Drawkcab (17/1/06)
A Home for Bookworms (20/2/06)


The Great Swifty said...

Hah, a cross between an indie bookshop and a mamak stall has to be started in Malaysia.

On the other hand, I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Here's my review.

Ted Mahsun said...

I can't remember: which hikayat is the "local colour" version of the Mahabharata?

Imagine meeting Vikram Seth in a bookshop. One should be so lucky! The only independent bookshops I spent time in my childhood were Mubaruk's and Novelhut, both famous in Ipoh for textbooks. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

If I met Vikram Seth in a bookshop I would not know it was hum. Ditto for pretty much any other writer.

Jason in Oakland said...

This is an old blog entry, but...

My friend and I just posted an online dialogue (kind of a 2-person book-club) on "The Golden Gate" here:

We'd love your comments if you'd be so kind as to join us.