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World Literacy Day: 10 best indie bookstores

Here’s a guide to the cosiest, quirkiest, and coolest independently-owned book stores in India

It’s World Literacy Day today. In the spirit of the season, here’s a guide to the cosiest, quirkiest, and coolest independently-owned book stores in India. These are idyllic literary corners run by booklovers (some of them second and third generation owners). Some also provide cups of coffee, tea and snacks at adjoining cafes.

Blossom Book House, Bengaluru

A recent visit to this gem in Bangalore has turned me into a lifelong Blossom groupie. I have been looking for some out-of-print James Thurber books for a while. And these guys had them. They have an unmatched collection of books spread over three floors. The books are catalogued and a quick search locates your choice in the gargantuan floor-to-ceiling stacks. You can order books online.

Blossom was launched in 2000 by former engineer and Orwell fan Mayi Gowda who quit his job to start selling books. It has over 2,00,000 new, used and rare titles which probably makes them the largest secondhand bookseller in the country. One of Blossom’s many fans has begun a Tumblr site – overheard at Blossoms. Check it out for things people say while browsing books here. My favourite was, “Oh man I feel like a blonde here, ” exclaimed a fellow while standing amidst a bunch of folks talking about Murakami books.

Atta Galatta, Bengaluru

This cosy store off a busy road in Koramangala was suggested as a meeting point by a friend in Bengaluru. When I got there, an author meet was on and heavenly smells were wafting in from the café which serves fresh-baked bread and coffee. Atta Galatta promotes books in regional languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi as well as Indian writing in English. You can also find hard-to-find old Tamil and Kannada books. The store also hosts music and storytelling sessions, book launches and readings, workshops, plays and films, discussions and quizzes. ‘Atta’ incidentally means ‘dough’ in Hindi, ‘play’ in Kannada, and ‘Galatta’ means a ‘racket’.

Tara Books, Chennai  

This is probably the most beautiful bookstore you’ll ever come across. If you are a fan of Tara (over the years, I have built a huge collection of Tara’s handbound treasures embellished with folk art), you will love the store. Art is everywhere – on the walls and pillars which sport eye-popping colour with folk art and story snippets. Even the spiral staircase has a snake painted on its steps. Everything here showcases the amazing skills of Indian folk artists – Gond, Patua, Madhubani, et al.

Leaping Windows Café, Mumbai and Bengaluru

Leaping Windows is heaven-sent for the burgeoning numbers of comic book fans who can’t afford the arm-and-leg prices. This one-of-its-kind comic bookstore, library, and reading room stocks graphic novels and comics, including independent world comic series like Robert Kirkman, Joe Sacco, James Kochalka, Guy Delisle, and Tony Moore.

You can also find favourites like Peanuts, Tintin, and Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix, Feluda, and Agatha Christie comics. Murals of characters from comic strips and graphic novels look down on you while you read or surf on the free wifi. Leaping Windows began in Mumbai and within a year, it had a second outlet in Bengaluru.

The New & Second Hand Book Shop, Mumbai

The largest second hand bookstore in Mumbai is a close cousin of Bengaluru’s Blossom. It started life as a seller of raddi paper in 1905. They stock children’s books, law, religion and philosophy on the ground floor, and agriculture, cinema, feminism, modern warfare and rare, out-of-print books on the first floor. I picked up beautifully illustrated Russian books for kids and an 1855 copy of the Poetical Works of John Dryden. You can ask for their catalogue if the overflowing shelves intimidate.

Address: The New & Second Hand Book Shop, 526 Kalbadevi; tel: +91 (0)22 22013314.

Strand Books, Mumbai

When I was living in Mumbai, the annual Strand Fair was ‘the’ major event of the year. Every January, I’d head to Sunderbai Hall in South Mumbai to splurge on the sale. My eyes were always on the heavily-discounted Taschen books and I would jostle with the crowd inside to get my hands on them.

The original store opened on the corner of the erstwhile Strand Cinema just after World War I in 1949.Today it is a chain with branches in Mumbai and Bengaluru, and five campus stores with two leading tech companies in the country. The store has quite a pedigree – its founder, the late TN Shanbhag, was awarded a Padma Shri. Loyal customers include Prime Minister Nehru, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, Dr Homi Bhabha, JRD Tata, former editor of a leading paper, Sham Lal, and well-known cartoonist RK Laxman.

Literati, Calangute, Goa

This cosy book shop and café won the 2014 Bookstore of the Year Award at the Publishing Next conference. It is run out of a charming old Goan house in Calangute by Diviya Kapur, a lawyer. I have spent many happy hours here, curled up with a book and cup of Karnataka coffee in their verandah.

Inside, the rooms are full of shelves stacked with new, second-hand and antique books. Literati hosts workshops, book releases and readings, film screenings, workshops and author meets with writers like Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Deshpande and Venita Coelho.

May Day Café, Delhi

Launched by Left Word Books on May 1 (International Workers’ Day), the store focuses on Leftist literature with shelves full of Left-leaning books. They also have books on art, Hindi literature, gender et al. A good buy here would be the old journals on music and folklore.

May Day also has a performance space – Studio Safdar – where you can catch a play. The café serves Coorg coffee and cakes. On the third Sunday of every month, the café hosts brunches with themes like street food, coffee, and mangoes.

Rachna Books, Gangtok

Nestled in the Himalayas with picturesque views, Rachna Books is 10 minutes from Gangtok bus stand. They are known especially for books on Sikkim, Tibet, Greater Himalayas and regional history but also stock a wide range of titles in every genre. Pick your book, and walk down a few steps to Cafe Fiction and fill up your travel diary sipping on some Sikkimese Temi tea and some good jazz. It also serves up authentic regional cuisine.

Earthcare Books, Kolkata

This quirky and vibrant bookstore advertises its wares via a glass showcase in a wall on the adjacent main road. Earthcare focuses on books about ecological issues. Visitors to the store include Masanobu Fukuoka (author of One Straw Revolution). Books are stocked according to theme in separate areas. The bamboo and rattan furniture gives the space a cosy feel. Black and white photos of Kolkata adorn the walls. They hold musical soirees, informal theatre performances, as well as workshops on urban gardening.


AUTHOR'S BIO: Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance writer and founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, an award-winning media collective for children and youth. A compulsive city-walker, she loves exploring urban cultures and is a columnist for NY-based Karta, a collaborative urban mapping project. Her most memorable adventure was in Afghanistan as digital media advisor, setting up citizens' media centres.