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VIGNETTES

New York is book country

While most of London's bookstores have sold out to pizzerias, New York, on the other hand, is overflowing with them, and crammed in one place — Manhattan ... . PRADEEP SEBASTIAN's impressions.

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

"Murder Inc.", the mystery bookshop.

A LARGE poster in my room (that I am very fond of) shows a man walking down one of those busy, skyscrapered Manhattan avenues startled into looking up because it is raining books. And the poster says: "New York Is Book Country". New York — not London. London, strangely and surprisingly, disappoints: even the famed book row, Charring Cross Road, is only a shadow of what it once was. Most of those quaint and charming bookstores have sold out to pizzerias and chain stores. New York, on the other hand, is overflowing with bookstores — both antiquarian and new. More than 100 at the last count and most of them crammed in one place — Manhattan. And they are all open up to midnight. Only one thing mars the city from being a benevolent book country: the rise of the large, chain bookstore at the cost of the shutting down of the small, independent bookstore. Many of the independents ("Brentanos", "Burlington", "Doubleday" and "Endicott") have been unable to compete with superstores like "Barnes and Noble", "Borders" and on-line stores like amazon.com. Some of these independent bookstores were — and still are — literary fixtures of New York City. They have been home to writers, literary critics, editors, publishers, book collectors and "Gotham's" million book lovers.

Will this happen in India? The chain bookstore is still a new phenomenon here. But already you see people streaming into "Landmark", "Crossword", "Oxford" and "Fountainhead" in a way that they never did at the local bookshops. Before any hasty judgments are made, we have to see what these two different kinds of bookstores have to offer to the reader. The local bookstore is more personal, intimate: you are known there. Often they know who and what you read, and it's cosy enough to run into other booklovers whom you can have a conversation with. Also, the shop, small as it is, is not too crowded and noisy. The first nice thing you notice about the big bookstore is the browsing space: it's large and the display is attractive, accessible. When your local bookstore runs out of a title, it takes longer for them to replace it but the chain store replaces it quickly. They have several store assistants to help you locate books, multiple checkout counters, places to sit and read, a special corner for children and a coffee shop inside.

"But," complains the book lover, "they sell other things — toys, greeting cards, CDs, VCDs, DVDs and stationery. Then it's not a proper bookshop anymore, is it? Also, they play piped music. I'm here to buy books and browse quietly and occasionally to talk about something interesting I've read. Asking a shop assistant to locate a book totally takes away the pleasure of hunting for a book and finding it. Perhaps the superstore suits the average reader more than the passionate book lover." The superstore vs. the small bookstore in New York is slightly different. "Barnes and Noble", for instance, have persuaded even book lovers to become their patrons. My favourite "Barnes and Noble" is the elegant, fabulously stocked five-storied Union Square branch. The atmosphere is literary, with the walls covered in huge posters of book jackets of American literary masterpieces. The walls around the Starbucks café inside are gigantic murals of great writers from around the world in conversation with one another. The incentives they offer to the reader are irresistible. If you return your book purchases within 15 days you get a full cash refund! Now how can those poor independents match that? Our clothing superstores like "Shopper's Stop" and "Lifestyle" offer an exchange — not cash refund — on purchases: perhaps our new chain bookstores should think of doing the same? Surely they can afford to: think of what a blessing that would be for the prolific book buyer. The numerous times I've bought a fairly expensive book — say, Rs. 400 and change — only to find on reading a few chapters that I don't really like it. And then I'm stuck with it. Try selling it to a second hand bookshop — you'll be lucky if you get 50 bucks for it.



Inside "Barnes and Noble"

THE independent bookstores in New York have fought such competition by falling back on their strength: their strong literary identity. They continue to resemble our old idea of what a bookstore should look like, and they are proud of it. The atmosphere here is hushed, serious, meditative, friendly. And the staff are all book lovers themselves and very knowledgable. Bookstores such as "Gotham Book Mart" on West 47th street, whose patrons — many of them literary celebrities — continue to be loyal to it. "Madison Avenue Bookshop" on 69th street and "Three Lives & Company" on 10th street are the other two very literary bookstores. The "Mysterious Bookshop" on West 56th street, The "Black Orchid" on East 81st street and "Murder Ink" on Broadway at 92nd street are bookshops devoted exclusively to mystery books. "Bluestockings", "A Different Light Bookstore" and "Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop" located in lower Manhattan are — you guessed it — gay and lesbian. "Forbidden Planet" on Broadway and 13th Street is for comics, graphic novels and sci-fi. There are several bookstores devoted to high quality children's literature but the best among them — scattered all over Manhattan — are: "Bank Street Bookstore", "Books of Wonder", "The Corner Bookstore" and "The Lenox Hill Bookstore". "St. Mark's Bookshop" is still the preferred bookshop of academics, students and the artist denizens of Greenwich and East village. Also good for books on critical theory are "Posman Books" and "Labyrinth Books" on the Upper West Side. "Applause", "Theatre Circle" and "The Drama Bookshop" in midtown Manhattan specialise in film, drama and the performing arts. Also in the midtown area: "J.N. Bartfield Fine Books" and "Bauman's Rare Books" — only two among New York's many fine antiquarian stores. Here you can find that rare first edition of your favourite book — if only you are willing to part with a few hundred dollars for just one copy.

My most favourite independent is the "Community Bookstore" in Brooklyn, discovered by my friend, Anu Iyer, a fellow Brooklyner. "Going to this bookstore makes me feel a part of Brooklyn," she says, " and running into other booklovers from the community gives me a solid sense of belonging. Now this would never happen in the chain stores." This little, but beautiful, bookstore on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope has a garden (small pool, waterfall) at the back and a cosy little café. The staff are the friendliest I know and the store is patronised by several Brooklyn based writers like Paul Auster. What I particularly love about "Community" are the two equally friendly mongrels that lounge there among the books. Another independent I have grown fond of is "The Bookery" in Ithaca (best known for Ivy League Cornell University and for using its own currency): the staff are friendly, knowledgable and the discounts they offer on a book purchase — whether it's 10 or 15 per cent — is credited to you at their adjacent used bookstore. A wonderful way, I thought, of weaning readers away from the superstores.



... stop here for used books.

BUT if New York is a haven for anything, it is for the used bookstore. This is where books go when they die. We call them second hand bookshops, they call them used bookstores. And it is New York's many and varied used bookstores that have not been hit by the superstores. In fact, they are the only bookstores that can compete with the chain stores because a new hardcover can find its way from a new store to a used store in a month's time! And then you can buy it for half the cover price. How do they get it this quickly and how do they sell it so cheaply? The secret: they happen to be reviewer's copies. "Argosy" is perhaps the oldest, and the most charming, antiquarian and used bookstore. There are at least 20 excellent used bookstores in this great city but perhaps the best known is "Strand" (not to be confused with the one here) on Broadway and 12th street. It is the largest used bookstore in the world with over three million books.

The famous red sign outside (and on the Strand T shirts) proudly says: "Eight miles of books". Store manager Nancy Bass says: "These days it is closer to 12 miles." It is always bustling with intrepid browsers (I prefer the quieter and relatively less crowded annex on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan) and books stretch as far as the eye can see. The combination of overflowing, crammed bookshelves and die-hard browsers is pure chaos but this is exactly why author Umberto Eco has pronounced "Strand" his "favourite place in America".



"Argosy" ... one of the finest antiquarian bookstores.

Will the small independent bookstore eventually disappear? What we'll miss with their going is the picture of a bookshop that has been precious to us, a notion we've cherished: intimate, old, cosy, a bit musty, overflowing bookshelves, piles of books on the floor, making a rare find, stumbling on odd little books and forgotten gems that have a chance of surfacing only here, idiosyncratic readers and eccentric booksellers.

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