Bookstore Life Lessons
Far from the madding crowd, between the shelves of bookshops small and big, lie pockets of peace and tranquillity, writes SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH
I adore the dusky, dusty second-hand stores you sometimes find at unexpected corners in cities all around the world. These stores are usually tiny and offer book lovers hidden treasures like hard-to-find or out-of-print tomes. Books are everywhere—tumbling out of shelves or piled high on groaning tabletops.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the spacious, well-lit, orderly bookstores. These are brand-name stores with multiple branches, attached cafés, thousands of trendy titles arranged in systematic lines on the shelves and an army of staff dressed in tidy uniforms. Purists and literary snobs sneeringly call these chainstores ‘commercial and impersonal’. Perhaps they’re right but none of that troubles me—I love them anyway.
Anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised to discover that I’m a huge fan of bookstores. Books are my friends. Over the years, they’ve given me much-needed solace in times of trouble and extra delight in times of joy. As a little girl in my hometown, Ipoh, a little bookshop called Mubarak and Sons was my favourite place in the world. I’d head straight for the shelf right up against the back wall—the one that held all of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. My eight-year-old self couldn’t resist Julian, whose cool head and wise council often saved the Five during their captivating adventures (incidentally, I married a man named Julian!). Back then, happiness meant a good book in my hands and a large bar of chocolate within reach—it still does!
It might seem like a random exercise or a waste of time but my addiction to browsing has given me plenty of insight to its benefits and allowed me to collect a number of Bookstore Life Lessons along the way.
Let’s begin with one of the biggest benefits of browsing, and interestingly enough, it doesn’t have much to do with books. Veteran browsers know this one well: bookstores are pockets of peace in the middle of crazy, chaotic malls. If a harried parent has just run a baby stroller over your foot or you’ve just escaped from an elevator that makes the inside of a sardine can seem roomy, head straight for the bookstore. Idly walking among legions of books in a silent, clean environment can evoke a sense of meditative tranquillity and restore your sanity.
I’ve never openly admitted this but my favourite shelf is marked ‘Self-Help’. I know some of you might be laughing right now but self-help books can be fabulous if you know which ones to read. However, I’m the first to admit that being a self-help lover has at least one major drawback—other bookstore browsers will catch sight of you amongst titles like Why Men Marry B**ches and Good Girls, Bad Choices. It isn’t Pulitzer- or Booker Prize-winning material and might lead others to conclude you’re a pathetic loser who has no friends. It took a long time but I’ve learned to ignore the judgmental looks thrown my way and stick to my preference. Self-help titles have resulted in the acquisition of a wide and varied array of skills—anything from meditation and understanding poetry to reading body language and tarot cards.
So here’s Bookstore Life Lesson #1: Follow your heart, do what makes you happy and don’t worry too much about what other people think.
Bookstore Life Lesson #2: You know that old adage “never judge a book by its cover”? Well, it’s a myth. It doesn’t apply to people and it certainly doesn’t apply to books. Have you ever seen a serious book, let’s say The History of Nazi Germany, wrapped in a bubblegum-pink cover with the title done in fancy cursive font? Most probably not. Book covers are designed to reflect the topic or story at hand. So, glancing at the covers will give you a good idea on what the book’s all about. The same principle applies to people. If someone has a permanently grumpy face, they’ve probably got a permanently grumpy personality. Jennifer Lopez has been quoted as saying: “Until you’re twenty you have the face you’re born with, after that you have the face you deserve.” I couldn’t agree more.
The next Bookstore Life Lesson I’ve learned is this: Never assume people sitting behind a desk marked ‘Customer Care’ actually care—about anything. Despite numerous disappointing and aggravating experiences, I still find it hard to grasp that many of those who work in bookstores don’t give a hoot about books and a few among these may not even have read one. You’re much better off navigating the shelves yourself. To make my case, here’s a conversation that recently took place between me and an assistant at a store, which shall remain unnamed:
Me: Hi! Please can you check if you have a book called The Zen of Social Media Marketing?
Bookstore staff (looking disinterested): What?
Me: Can you please check if you have a book called The Zen of Social Media Marketing?
Staff: Zen? Is that the name of the writer?
Me: No, that’s the title of the book. The author is Shama Kabani.
Staff: Name of book?
Me: The Zen of Social Media Marketing.
Staff: Name of writer? Zen, right?
At this point, I was ready to run away screaming, and I’m ashamed to admit that I was close to grabbing his collar so I could shake some sense into him. As with any other store, service is the difference between a good and bad experience for a customer. Fortunately, the smaller, more personalised bookshops tend to have workers who are far less apathetic. However, there’s a real danger of coming away feeling like an uneducated buffoon. Smaller bookstores are staffed with people who are passionate about books. This might be bad news if you’re a ‘bestseller only’ or ‘chick lit’ reader. You’ll likely attract ill-concealed disdain when they suggest obscure, intellectual titles and discover you have no idea what they’re talking about.
I’m hoping my browsing knowledge will help you enjoy a positive experience the next time you decide to indulge in a leisurely stroll between the shelves. As for me, browsing in bookstores has always been and will always be a much-loved pastime. So, if you ever need to track me down in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, you know exactly where to find me.
Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine