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Delhi’s legendary bookstore is to die, aged 31.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The Bookworm, a 31-year-old landmark at Connaught Place’s B Block that has been visited by booklovers like Satyajit Ray, is closing down. Blame it on the declining business caused by the rise of bookstore chains and cheaply priced pirated books in the city.
Desperate to roll down the shutters as soon as possible, this legendary shop that always insisted on selling books at their list prices is now clearing its stock of around 20,000 books by offering up to 70 per cent discount. “By monsoon, it should be all over,” says Mr. Anil Arora, the owner.
Those ready to mourn the disappearance of independently owned bookshops must refrain. The Bookworm is not the only such store in town. Perhaps not even superior. Basant Lok’s Fact and Fiction has the most eccentric collection; Khan Market's Bahri Booksellers has the most informed staff; while Jor Bagh's Book Shop, as recently described by New York Times, is “the coziest bookstore in the country.”
However, a bookstore’s persona is not created by its professionalism alone. An entire set of intangible something that cannot be defined but which is an absolute must in making up the romance of a place is needed. The Bookworm has that mood. Since 1977, when Arora replaced his liquor store with this bookshop, the spiral staircase, the revolving bookcase, Nabokov in the corner, Chomsky on the first floor, and Miles Davis and Bill Evans as background singers have been luring booklovers here.
And then there are the 11 bookshop assistants, so nice that they never embarrass any regular by asking for payments of books purchased in times past.
The Bookworm’s charm would be incomplete without them. The smiling Ms. Shalini Rose has been manning the desk for 21 years; Mr. Amarnath Shukla “keeping an eye on everything” for 29 years, and Ms. Kim Mawipiakim assisting Shalini for two-and-a-half years. They all, including their boss, are now making plans for life after The Bookworm. Mr. Arora will change business, Ms. Rose is moving to London and Ms. Mawipiakim is a “young girl who will have no dearth of jobs.”
According to Ms. Rose, the golden era of the bookshop lasted till 2000. In the new millennium, the corporates intervened with their large bookstore chains, stealing quite a few of the Bookworm’s loyalists. “People came here from far flung areas like Gurgaon but now they have bookstores in their own neighbourhood malls,” says Mr. Arora.
Shops offering huge discounts made things worse. Yet not all bookworms shifted loyalties. “We have readers coming here since their college days,” Mr. Arora says. “They change jobs, cities and countries and yet they keep coming,” he says. For instance, the owner of a popular restaurant chain has patronised the shop since the day it opened.
Curiously, over the years The Bookworm’s bestsellers have remained the same — Catch 22, Seagulls and Agatha Christie mysteries. The only contemporary classic that joined this exalted company is Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. “This novel has a consistent sale and it is probably the one whose copies we have sold the maximum,” says Mr. Arora. Boookworm’s closure will be Roy’s loss too.
Mr. Arora and his lost empire
Books on discount
The dying breath
Ms. Shalini Rose (left) and Ms. Kim Mawipiakim
Bye bye Bookworm