Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Makes a Bookstore Work

The other day, while I was on my way back home, a hoarding drew my attention: Sapna Book Store – the largest book store of India. I stepped in to check the veracity of the claim.

The store is a three-storied affair which offers many things apart from books: CDs, gift items etc. They have a floor dedicated to each type of things on offer. A part of the third floor is apportioned for books. There are different sections for different genres of books – and, although the book section is not very large, the collection is quite impressive.

I also liked how they handle their customers. They have salesmen loitering in the book section but they help you only if you approach for help, unlike some other places where there is a person trailing you whichever part of the store you walk to, soliciting unsolicited help.

It irritates because you don’t always visit a store with the intention buying books but just to browse. It also denies you the privacy and escape you expect a bookstore to provide. It causes the suspicion: “Do they think I’m going to flick a book and walk out?” Exasperated, you walk out after a while. I had a similar experience with Oxford bookstore in Calcuta.

Over time, you get addicted to a bookstore. The atmosphere, how books are arranged, everything seems distinct and makes you feel at home. If it plays a light music, it can add to the atmospherics (readers mostly have very refined musical sensibilities, so you have to be discreet with what music you play). A visit to the place becomes an experience and a must. And, if the store is sprawling, it’s merrier. Landmark in Bangalore gives me this feeling.

It is sometimes difficult to pin down what makes a bookstore special, though. Gangarams, the oldest bookstore in Bangalore located on MG Road, doesn’t have any of the attributes of Landmark. Gangarams is shabbily maintained, cramped for space, disorganized, dusty. But these work out to its advantage, giving it a warm old-world charm.

A very well-maintained bookstore may appear too mechanical to be comfortable. When I visit a Crosswords outlet anywhere, I find it a little distant. A disheveled look of Landmark and Gangarams makes me feel at home when it comes to books.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Just Read - A Network of Libraries

Just Read, a network of libraries, has set up an outlet in our office campus. They have several schemes for membership and book hiring on offer. There are periodic membership fees and apart from that, the reader has to pay a deposit which is returnable. I am not fond of libraries because, being a slow reader, I fail to finish a book within the permitted time and attract late fees. With Just Read, I don’t have to do that. The reader can keep a book for as long as he/she wants. The deposit protects the library against unreturned books.

I was not so impressed with their collection. They mostly have American best sellers for fiction. There are no Amitava Ghoshs, Naipauls, Rushdis, RK Narayans etc. Nor did I find a section dedicated to classics. The non-fiction collection is also limited. The grand old man of Indian English writing – Kushwant Singh – looked at me from several book covers, but the books were only his non-fiction ones.

My colleague, reluctant to betray his ignorance about books, walked to the shelf dedicated to management books. Holding a book in hand – something like 10 Points on Success – he said, “It’s simply best.” Which means the book is so good that its superlative merit is beyond any shred of doubt. The book jacket didn’t look so promising at least.

The problem with Just Read is its lack of space. The outlet occupies a slim slice of space with just three rows. With so little space you can’t house a sizable body of collection; you have to keep small measures of many types. And that’s what you get there.

I don’t know how big their other shops are, though.

I like the concept of chain libraries; I didn't know they existed. You get to read books without having to pay too much for them and without the books eating into your living space.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lucky Holi

Sometimes the most daunting problems resolve themselves surprisingly easily.

Yesterday was Holi, the festival of colors, and a holiday for the India part of our company. I usually don’t keep track of holidays and a week earlier, when I had scheduled a meeting with our US counterparts, not surprisingly I didn’t know I had scheduled the meeting on the holiday. A colleague informed me a few days later, but by that time the invitation had been accepted by all the invitees and I was reluctant to reschedule the meeting. (We use a software application which sends out invitations in form of mail and when the invitee accepts the invitation, the sender is sent an intimation of the same.)

The meeting was from 10PM to 11PM, the time when my area experiences a sustained power cut. While even without power, I would be able to join the meeting from my personal phone, the power cut wouldn’t allow me to access office network from my laptop, disallowing me to share information with the other participants. (I work in an IT outsourcing environment where you are allowed to work at home sometimes.)

So avoiding the risk of power cut, I decided to attend the call from office. I called up the office cab helpdesk and booked a cab for me. The cab would pick me from my home around 40 minutes before the meeting; that is just as long it takes you to go to office from my place.

It was around 9PM and the cab was expected in another 40 minutes – which meant 40 minutes were all I had to get ready and finish dinner. I got ready, rushed through dinner and started waiting for the cab. 20 minutes later, I was still waiting; the cab hadn’t arrived. I dropped the plan of going to the office and decided to attend the meeting from home - there were only a few minutes to go for the meeting to start, after all.

Thankfully, when I walked back home, there was no power cut. But how long would the power relent? What if the power went out the moment I started talking on the call? What an embarrassment would that be – with seven participants and all dependent on me! I knew I didn’t have myself to blame; I had tried my best to reach the office.

The call started. Everyone joined at the other end. Hoping for the best, I started my demonstration. I had to share an idea with the participants and develop a consensus in favour of the idea. When I finished the demonstration, someone at the other end said, “This is what I expected.” And others followed suit.

Finally, we agreed to conclude the meeting.

The meeting lasted for 15 minutes instead of the scheduled one hour, and the power was still there.
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