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The Fate of Delhi Bookstores: The Midland Bookstore Owner Tells All

Bhavika posted on 28 January

The past year saw a few of Delhi’s dearest, quaintest bookstores shutting shop for good. We wondered what the fate of the rest would be, as did blogger Bhavika Govil. She decided to find out, by means of an interview with the bookseller at Midland. This story originally appeared on her blog; you can read it here.

He knew exactly where the book I wanted was. He spent 10 minutes looking for it for me. “There is definitely one copy on this shelf,” he said, as we both picked up one book after another to look for it. We did find it and I clapped a quick clap in my head.

How delightful was the feeling of hearing familiarity and seeing recognition on a bookseller’s face, as opposed to a disappointing black text set on a white screen, saying ‘Sorry, this book is currently unavailable,’ I thought, and left the shop, Midland, with my book clutched to my heart.

A few days later, I decided to ask the shop’s owner—Mirza Asad a few questions. Never having interviewed anyone before, I gingerly approached the shop again. The bookseller and I stood awkwardly in front of each other. I looked at him. He looked at me. I took out a pen. He raised an eyebrow. I gave him my name and idea. He gave me his word and his trust. And then we began.

Me: Why did you become a bookseller?

Bookseller: My father loved books, and he started working at a bookshop in Hyderabad. He used to work there, and they would give him books in return.

Me: Not money?

Bookseller: No. Books. They would give him a book every day, and after his shift, he would go home, pore over his book and bring it back the next day. This continued for a while, and then the owner of the bookshop handed over the shop to him, because his children were not interested in it. That’s how he got his first bookshop, in the streets of an Urdu Market in Hyderabad. He then started with one bookstore in Delhi. Now we have four. Four brothers and four shops. New Book Land in Janpath, and Midland Book Shop(s) in Aurobindo Market, South Ex 1, and New Midland Book Shop in DLF Phase 1, Gurgaon. I handle this branch – the South Ex one.

A customer {asking the bookseller}: Do you have Anton Chekhov? Not plays, but short stories and novels.

The bookseller helps him and answers all his questions earnestly.

Me, again: What is it like to own a bookshop?

Bookseller: It’s everything. Setting your books, checking what is there, seeing I have the book if I have promised it to anyone, talking to readers, helping them with selections, and the whole day ends.

Me: What sells more here? Fiction or non-fiction?

Bookseller: Both are parallel. Earlier it was more of fiction; now non-fiction has caught up.

He pauses, goes to pass The Rough Guide of India book to a young reader who has just walked in.

Me: What kind of books do Indian readers read?

Bookseller: Indian readers like both Indian literature as well as foreign. In Asia, we tend to like British literature and appreciate it. We read American novels too. We read everybody and that’s why we, as Indian readers, are diverse. Americans don’t read British literature as much. Unlike India, I doubt you will find an American child who grew up on Enid Blyton.

Me: Who is an interesting customer to you?

Bookseller: No one is a customer to me. I don’t treat them as customers. They are lovers of books. Intellectuals. Readers. Teachers. I learn something from everybody who walks into this store. I believe that a person who reads books can never talk nonsense.

Me: Can you identify a true book-lover at first glance? {hoping he looks at me and says: “Yes, You!”}.

Bookseller: I can, instinctively. When someone walks in, I can tell. The reason is, this is what I’ve done from when I was a child. Books are all I know. That is my greatest strength and weakness.

He laughs.

Bookseller: I can also tell when a book will do well and it won’t. We call it the bookseller’s instinct.

Me: At the risk of asking a clichéd question, as a bookseller, what do you think about online book giants? What is the future of physical bookstores?

Bookseller: It will not matter. Bookstores shall remain. I knew 15-20 years ago, before Amazon entered India, that online bookstores were going to arrive here. But this model is not going to sustain. You see many such websites dropping like flies nowadays. This shall continue.

Me: But people say that it’s cheaper to buy books online..?

Bookseller: Look, they can offer discounts. But till what limit? They have to make profits too. Till when will they continue cutting the prices of books? There has to be an end to this as well.

Me: But then why have so many physical bookstores closed down in Delhi?

Bookseller: There are many reasons. A) The rent is too high in most areas. B) The new generation is not interested. This is not a problem specific to books. It is with all family businesses.

Me: What is your final thought on books and reading?

Bookseller: Those who have read, can write. Those who can write, do read. Books will always teach you something. It is endless. Books are here to stay, because books are books.

Me: Thank you so much, for speaking to me and giving me your words. One last important question: Do you have The Bell Jar by ..

“Sylvia Plath,” he says, briskly nodding and completing my sentence. “Yes. I know just where it is.”

Here we go again.

It was very promising, as a reader and worrier of the fate of book stores, to meet such a confident and humble book seller. He knew his books, his people and he was not afraid of changes, whether disregarding reality or not. While we spoke, readers bustled in and out. They bought books, asked a few questions. And then asked some more. He answered them all patiently, attentively and willingly. Like Mr Asad said, books are here to stay. Just keep on reading.

You can visit Midland Book Shop in South Ex.Phase 1, New Delhi.

The conversation has been translated from Hindi and is as to the word as possible.