The first bookstore I remember visiting was in Priya Market.
The place itself goes by many names – I suppose the correct name for the market itself is the Basant Lok Market, but my parents, and I think many other Delhi residents, simply refer to the whole area as Priya, after the famous South Delhi cinema hall, where my father used to go to see pictures when he was a college student. Priya, I am told, was where South Delhi went for entertainment in those days. It was where you went to find good restaurants and branded clothes in company showrooms, back when malls either didn’t exist or were too far away. So no wonder Priya was where I experienced the many “firsts” of my life—for example, the McDonald’s there was my first experience with fast food.
Although my parents rarely frequented the cinema, I would often find myself in Priya, as my parents used to take me there to buy books for me. Unknown to me, it had been the place where my father had bought most of my books, and now I had arrived at their source. Often, we would eat at McDonald’s afterward, and I would order chicken nuggets (explains why I’m so partial to their mustard sauce—it is the one sauce we would get in addition to the ketchup, and I disliked ketchup intensely at that age). Visits felt too short and too rare, and yet so long has passed that I can hardly remember a single book I read there at that age, although a sizeable part of my current bookshelf holds a ton of encyclopedias and non-fiction volumes marked with those iconic red-and-white Om Book Shop discount stickers.
A few years later, on one of my last visits to Priya, I asked my father if we could visit Om Book Shop, one more time, for old times’ sake. He instead suggested we try another bookstore nearby, which he had frequented in his college days, which I was astounded to learn about. All these years, and I had never managed to learn that there were two bookstores in the vicinity. We squeezed into the small, cramped, space occupied by Fact and Fiction, and although it has been a while, I distinctly remember smiling at the line of George R. R. Martin novels stacked for purchase, no doubt expected to be sold out due to the premiere of the then-latest season of Game of Thrones. I think I bought only a single novel that day (uncharacteristic of my book-buying habits, funnily enough), but as he packaged the books, I remember the man at the counter smiling at me and tucking a small Fact and Fiction bookmark into my book as he handed it over. The shop was nearly empty that day, and even though I was young, I could tell that not many people stopped by there, and the thought saddened me.
I thank my father mentally every day for introducing me to that bookstore that day, for it would be my last visit there; Fact and Fiction closed its shutters forever in 2015, and only later, through tribute columns published in the Delhi editions of national newspapers, would I learn about the eclectic collections it housed and the man behind the counter I met that day, who was the shop-owner, and the brief glimpse of Delhi’s literary heritage I had managed to see. Whenever I hear about other small Delhi bookshops shutting down, finally losing to e-retailers, I think of Fact and Fiction, and I sometimes wonder if the books I saw that day ever did manage to get sold.
We stopped going to Priya when we moved to somewhere closer to the mall road, which in turn meant visiting the mall much more frequently. The mall road had two malls of interest to me: Ambience and DLF Promenade, and I have never bothered to go to the buildings beyond those malls. The reason was simple—Ambience had a bookshop called Landmark, and DLF (even today) has its own branch of Om Book Shop. I remember Landmark fondly, for it had, for me, the widest range of books I ever found in a bookshop to date, bestsellers and classics alike, and many, many books I think I would not have read had I not visited the shop on incredibly fateful days.
Even today, I am surprised simply by the range of quality products I saw as a child in the store, for it stocked everything from chocolates to stationery to electric guitars to books to video games. I suppose it was a sort of a retail store, but if anything, it is a sign of my absorption in my own world that all I remember it for is the massive shelves of children’s literature (the largest I had seen at the time) and a tall white pillar surrounded by black cushions on which I sat and read. There was a certain intimacy that all of us readers who sat on that couch shared, some leaning forward into the book, some leaning back onto the pillar, and all of us in contrast to the bustling, noisy, rest-of-the-store. As books would be finished, people would get up and leave, and I would only be partially conscious of the spaces left near me, often finishing multiple volumes during a single session.
Now that I was (hopefully) old and responsible enough not to get lost, my parents would leave me alone to read while they shopped at the mall, and I was content to live within the pages of my own world there, or at the Om Book Shop in the opposite mall, depending on where my parents needed to shop. Landmark even hosted a quiz for three years, in which I participated. Landmark, too, shut down a few years ago, and with it, I believe, ceased my visits to the mall, which became much more occasional, and food-motivated.
It is unfair, however, for me to speak of hunting for books without thanking the numerous literary events and fests I have managed to attend over all these years, and the many amazing people I met along the way. I was recently cataloging my books, driven to do so by the inane boredom of being in quarantine, and I simply could not believe the number of books in my personal library whose authors I met somewhere or the other, and of whom I have very fond memories. Yet, that is a tale for another time—if I get started, I may never finish, and like all good books, this post must, too, come to an end. No, this is for all the book-buying sessions I shared with my family, and while I love book launches, literary meets, and other social literary events, there is a certain exclusive intimacy we share between us, my father, my mother, and I. For that, we only need to visit two more places, and that we shall leave for another post. Quietly, we shall now back away from the twelve-year-old boy reading in the corner of a bookshop, and turn the page.