Nostalgia Series – A Bower Quiet for Us 

The glass door is open to its fullest extent, as if consciously straining itself to give passers-by a glimpse of the books inside. Books-en-Amee is situated on a small street touching Patna’s (appropriately named) Boring Road. The shop sits inconspicuously on the street, otherwise known for and named after an iconic sweets shop.

The smell of incense is the first thing that registers when I enter the shop. 

Inside, the walls are books with only a small door-shaped hole ahead to go into the next room. On the right, there are Penguin classics, the Very Short Introductions series by Oxford (on everything from the French Revolution to Number Theory), The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen, history books and novels. On the left wall are a selection of Hindi titles by Premchand and translated works of Tagore and Gandhi. In the front, you see the works of the Bard himself placed next to a collection of Agatha Christie novels. What catches the eye immediately is how the books are placed – not stuffed or packed next to each other (like the bookshelves in the background of some political commentator on TV). Instead, they are given room to breathe – with no author rubbing shoulders with another. In the very next room, Aatmanand Das, the owner, sits at his desk on one end. The passage to his right leads to the next two rooms – one for used books sold at a discounted price and another for children’s books. The incense emanating from his desk permeates through the four rooms of the store like blood rushing through the chambers of the heart. 

 It is impossible to visit Books-en-Amee and not go back to 2012, when I first stepped inside the shop. Back then, my exposure to literature was limited – confined to the books and short stories that my sisters showed me. I remember turning my head, shifting my gaze from one wall to another, never having seen so many books in one place. I would pace from one corner to another reading the titles, a pristine joy colouring my face if I recognized the books and authors that I had seen in my GK book.  

Mr. Das leads me to another room for the interview. He moves surely but gracefully, just like you would imagine the owner of an old bookstore would walk. We sit down for the interview, surrounded on all sides by children’s literature, monopoly sets and other toys. The two of us take a moment to adjust. There is no one else in the store. You can almost hear the cold outside as we start the interview. 

Here are the excerpts:

1.  Tell us about how the store started.

 I was 24 and finishing my B. Com. degree. This was in 1979, right after the JP movement so no exams were being conducted. My brother, who was twenty years older and like a father figure to me, suggested that I should start a business. I didn’t even know that there was a market for ‘outbooks’ (an old colloquial term for books other than textbooks); it was my older brother who told me to start a bookstore. He wanted me to do something meaningful with my life and in those days, since I was so young, I basically did everything he told me to. 

2.  Why “Books-en-Amee”?

The name was my idea actually – there used to be a Korean pen company called Monami, I don’t know if it’s still around. And obviously ‘en ami’ in French means “as a friend”. So, I thought “Books, as friends”. This, along with some numerology related reasons is how we ended up with “Books-en-Amee”. 

3. What challenges did you face starting out?  

In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn everything on my own – what books, magazines to buy and how much. I asked a relative of mine what books to get and since they used to read James Hadley Chase, they recommended his books. So, I put out some of his books on display – one here, one there. The next day, a girl comes to the store and asks me if I had Mills and Boon books – I didn’t even know they were a thing. Then I bought a few Mills and Boon books. That’s how you learn. The truth is, I have learnt a lot from my customers. And I wasted no time in doing this, after the first two years we started gaining speed.

4. How has your journey been so far? 

There have been countless trials and tribulations over the years. You wouldn’t believe me – the shop had to move places 9 times in the last 45 years, but we always stayed in this locality and always remained a bookstore. Covid was the biggest challenge – I was disturbed for two whole years. We didn’t have any income but somehow, I managed to keep the store afloat.  

5. How have your sales and customer base evolved over the years from the 80s to the present?

Our golden period was between 1982-95. In those days, we had amazing sales. We still don’t sell as much as we used to, back then. People bought a lot of magazines and books – we had an impressive magazine collection… hundreds of different magazines. Now less than 15 of those magazines are around. Illustrated Weekly, Youth Times, Probe, Dharmyug, Maya, Kadambini, Mirror are all gone now. Magazines were cheap and attracted even the casual readers. You could buy all magazines for about Rs 1 to Rs 3. Now, Frontline costs Rs 125 per issue.

Despite all this, I don’t believe the notion that people are less interested in reading nowadays. It’s just that times have changed, and very drastically too. Your generation, for better or worse, leads a very fast life. You all have great qualities, but I have observed that not a lot of youngsters spend time in bookstores like you are supposed to. The other day, a young man came into the shop and asked me if I had a particular book. I said that we don’t, and he just turned to leave. This is not what bookstores are for. You are supposed to walk around, see all the books, maybe talk to the guy sitting at the desk. This way both of us can learn something. I am afraid this culture will die out. 

6. A lot of my friends and even people on the internet have this beautiful idea of opening a bookstore later on and leading an idyllic retired life. What do you think about this?

I know, it sounds very pretty – a small colourful bookstore of your own. Like a flower boutique. But people in this industry are seldom happy. Sometimes their flowers get wilted, some flowers don’t sell at all. Now the florist must decide what to do with these flowers. There’s a reason you don’t see new bookstores propping up every now and then – you can only survive if you have experience. You need to understand which books will sell. When I go to Calcutta or Delhi to get my stock, I buy 4-5 lakhs worth of books in about 4 hours. This comes from experience.

7.  You have been running this shop for decades. Can you share some memorable incidents or stories that have stayed with you?

There are many stories. During the late 90s, Lieutenant General Sinha used to come to the shop frequently. He was the Vice Chief of Army Staff (second highest ranking officer in the Indian Army) before he retired in 1983. He was a very humble man, always greeting me with joined hands despite his seniority and stature. One morning, I read in the newspaper that he is to be sworn in as the Governor of Assam. Naturally, I was really happy for him. Moments later, I see that his car is parked right outside the shop. Before I could think, he entered the shop and came up to me. He tells me that he wanted to stop by and say goodbye before he leaves for Assam. And then he extended his arm for a handshake. I got goosebumps – he came to shake hands with an ordinary bookstore owner, I felt like I was doing something right in life.

8.     What are your plans for the future of Books-en-Amee?

I’ll tell you. How old do you think I am? I will be 70 this April. If I am very smart and sensible and take care of my health, I will maybe live to be 77, at most. Seven more years. That will be the life of the shop as well. My children are well settled, doing their own thing. And not everyone can run a bookstore. When people assess a bookshop, they might see how good the stock is, how the interior is, how is the location.. but what I see is – who is sitting at the counter?


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