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Lessons In Small Print: Wayword, Wise and Wonderful

Article Icon - Lessons In Small PrintOnce a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.


Small is beautiful. Also, if we’re thinking of the cosy bookshops we grew up with, small is warm, personal and ultimately nurturing.

A tiny fistful of these establishments still stand valiantly, wherever in the world you live, right? Yet, how much of a chance do they really have in these days of big, brash bookshop chains whose uniformed staffers strut around knowing zilch about titles they sell? (I’ve actually seen copies of The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie get stacked in the Children’s section in a leading bookseller’s flagship store.)  The pure pleasure customers feel on being addressed by name by a proprietor who remembers individual tastes now seems long-forgotten.

When birth order places you four years after an adored brother, his music and books become yours for life. Instead of the predictable exploits of super sleuth Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton’s stories, I trailed his schoolboy favourites from Biggles and Billy Bunter to Alistair MacLean and Nevil Shute. Strolling into the tiny bookshop round the corner from our home in Bandra (which, incidentally, still beckons to young readers half a century later) we’d be all wired with anticipation. In a routine of reassuringly familiar gestures the mild, bespectacled manager would lead us in with an inviting “This one I know you’ll like!”

Not that we were some rare breed of Children Who Read.  Then, sans the seductive distraction of Internet chats and iPods, it was the magic of the printed word that reigned. An intimate hub, the neighbourhood bookshop formed a comfort zone with charms hard to describe, where we could stick our noses between the pages of a paperback for as long as we liked.

Sometimes, in the unlikeliest ways, the more things change the more they remain the same. Graced by the august offices of shipping companies and flagship industry houses, Mumbai’s oldest business district has just welcomed a new kid on the block. A brave little bookshop in an age of online ordering and Kindle downloads.

Wayword & Wise, at one end of the elegant Ballard Estate, is investment banker and gourmet foods importer Atul Sud’s surprise labour of love. “I like people who like books,” he shares with simple conviction. “It’s a life-changing decision. Believe me, it’s madness to open an independent bookshop today. But at some point you realise passion should take precedence over commercial gain. I have faith there are enough fans of print who want to smell and touch books, feel them in their hands.” As his Customer Number 4, on buying a Wodehouse boxed set for a fellow PG fan, I can’t miss the bookmark quoting Neil Gaiman: “A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.”

Carefully curated by his CEO, Virat Chandhok, almost 8,000 dreams wait to unfold on freshly polished display shelves. The children’s section casts an especially luminous glow with more than the expected editions of Harry Potter Young Adult authors of fantasy. Kids will enjoy browsing through rows of Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman and series like Lemony Snickets and Adrian Mole, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl novels, Chrisopher Paolini’s Eragon escapades and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson sagas. But it is the offbeat that rules here. Junior staples such as Eric Carle and Beatrix Potter are carefully complemented with titles that include the brilliantly illustrated Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and Big Brother Little Brother by Penny Dale, a wonderful picture book on early sibling bonds.

The forgotten gems of Paul Gallico find snug space, and Shel Silverstein’s sparkling verse tomes could convert even the most reluctant readers into becoming bookworms. A fine collection of Indo-English writing is showcased as well. Music buffs may look forward to dedicated delights like The John Lennon Letters and The Kurt Cobain Journals. Beyond usual sci-fi suspects Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, you’ll get acquainted with the visionary dystopian worlds of JG Ballard and Philip K Dick.

What does it really mean to stick one’s neck out as a small bookseller today? Isn’t it a dicey, daunting prospect? Will Wayword & Wise be able to hold its own, especially given its strictly-no-discounts policy?

Sud, who acknowledges KD Singh, that gentle proprietor of The Book Shop in Delhi, as his inspiration, is confident of success following his mentor’s mantras.  In his words: “First of all, one must research and order what is quality, not ‘fast food junk’ offered by publishers with heavy discounting for volume sales. You cannot compete with Flipkart and Amazon. For such quality, they will neither have ready stock, nor offer volume discounts. So I need not discount. Secondly, display is far more critical than the number of titles in your inventory. But most important, be a knowledgeable bookseller who knows his books and recommends titles, not a supermarket with ignorant sales staff.”

Chandhok adds, “Independent bookstores with an eclectic stock will find their own customers… If we choose different titles discerningly, people [will] prefer to buy them off the shelf rather than go through the bother of ordering books online and having to wait for [them].”

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