The first time I stepped into a bookstore, I mean a proper bookstore, and not just a shop in Pan Bazaar manned by salesmen who fetched you books you named from the bookshelves, was when I was 23. I was visiting Kolkata for my summer holidays, and was being given “the tour” by a cousin of my friend’s. I remember walking by Park Street and chancing upon the Oxford bookstore and being attracted to it like bee to honey. And when I stepped inside, it felt like I was living a dream. Two whole levels with books piled up on shelves that reached way up high? Plush carpeting and ambient lighting? And wait, a comfy place to sit and read without even having to buy the book? Where had this place been all my life and why had I never been acquainted with such a place for twenty three whole years?!
Considering how a significant part of my childhood was spent being wrapped around books, we had never actually bought many books. Other than text books for school of course. My sister and I were lucky enough to have had a steady supply of books lent to us by people around us, particularly our English teacher (perks of being a teacher’s daughter), as well as hand me downs from cousins. The school library had a major contribution in satiating our appetite for all the Famous Five and Hard Boys and Nancy Drew books. And so, between one thing and another, I had spent twenty three years of my life not knowing what an actual bookstore looked like. But the moment I stepped inside one, I knew I had found the place where I would always feel at home.
Two years after my first tryst with a bookstore, I stepped outside India for the first time, and my whole world changed. Even as I waited for my very first international flight from Chennai to Singapore, I found myself wandering to the bookstore and buying a book for comfort (it was a Cecilia Ahern), unknowingly setting a trend for all future international flights. True, Vietnam didn’t offer me much in the way of books, except again in the airports, but since then I have always found a bookstore in every place to home in on. In Kuala Lumpur it was the massive Kinokuniya in Suria KLCC, and towards the end of our stay there I knew each section like the back of my hand. In Singapore I frequented the excellently equipped Sengkang Community Library that was conveniently situated quite near our place, and I spent a major part of my pregnancy taking the bus to and from the library, clutching a big bag full of books with me.
It was only after I became a mother, and realized the little one was just as much of a bookworm as I am, that I started noticing the kids section in bookstores and libraries, and that opened a whole new world of bliss for me. Which is why, when we moved to Dubai and I discovered the Ibn Battuta Mall and the Borders bookstore there, I lost my mind a little. The toddler section is filled with aisle after aisle of classic board books and activity books and sound books and what have you. I am almost embarrassed to admit that on my first trip there I didn’t even make it to the adult section. I had initially gone there with a plan to buy a few puzzles for Miss Munchkin, but instead she made me read book after book in the small reading area, and I happily obliged. I obviously returned the very next day with the Husband (aka the One with the Wallet) to show him our happy place, and since then there hasn’t been a single week that I haven’t been there. Recently when my parents were visiting, I took them there to find a copy of one of my favourite books that my Dad hadn’t read yet (like I needed an excuse anyway) and as I flitted about muttering exclamations, my Dad remarked “You do go a little cuckoo when you come to this place, don’t you?”
Sigh. Bookstores. Even yesterday as I mentioned to the Husband that I was feeling a bit down and might drop by at Borders, he asked me “Why? What do you want to buy this time?” I gave him that look that said “Do I really need a reason?” I wonder if it is slightly weird to just want to “hang around” by the section offering classic books at just 15 Dhs. Or to swoon over books with brightly illustrated covers. Or lovingly sweep my fingers across that immensely attractive display of “3 for 2” on toddler’s board books. I might rush past a window display with shoes on sale, or even dresses; handbags wouldn’t even warrant a second look… But something about a bookstore… Like honey to bee. Without fail. The moment I feel those plush carpets under my feet, the moment I see those bright shelves and hear that peppy music they keep playing, I am lost to everything else.