Delhi is a city of many multitudes and can be marked by its vast cultural landscape that can be further demarcated by its literary accomplishments. With a wide array of long-standing bookstores, FII was in conversation with the respective owners of two legacy bookstores, that those who have grown up in this city are familiar with: Faqir Chand Bookstore and Bahrisons Booksellers. The discussion was mainly on how the literary landscape of this city has evolved over the ages with the years, in terms of genre and demographic, through the experience and knowledge of the trade that they bring to the table.
FII spoke to Abhinav Bahmi, the great-grandson of Faqir Chand Bookstore himself, and he is the 4th generation owner. Faqir Chand’s legacy status offers it a unique selling point in a space that has become as hyper-commercialised as Khan Market, which is best known as one of the most expensive and upscale areas to shop in Delhi today. With how fast-paced life is in such a city, the shops and restaurants around Faqir Chand come and go, while it remains an ever-present reminder of the city that existed long before the one we know today. They have never chosen to franchise it, nor do they deliver, or sell online, the books that are in their inventory. It has always been a place for one to visit in person, making the act of buying a book there more than just a task to tick off one’s to-do list, but also an experience.
There has always been a diverse range of people that you can find perusing the aisles of Faqir Chand Bookstore. The patrons who frequented the bookstore at its inception, would bring their children, who in turn bring their own children today, and so on, making their visits a bonding experience for the families at large. Even those who have moved and started new lives in new cities, or new countries, find Faqir Chand Bookstore to be the one place they still recognise when they revisit this city.
In this way, it is a bookstore that strives to maintain its nostalgia today, even down to the fact that there are no computers or electronic billing systems present anywhere within the facilities. It is, in essence, one of the landmark places we now associate with Delhi in terms of its cultural footprint, especially when we take its inclusion as a staple in the numerous Instagram reels that come across our feeds romanticising Delhi. Social media, in that way, has definitely played a role in shaping the literary landscape of today, not just in terms of where we shop from, but also what we then go on to buy there.
We could even correlate Faqir Chand’s increase in sales post-pandemic to how online forums for book
lovers, which have become more popular during the quarantine as a means to occupy one’s time,
have drummed up interest in people to get back into reading.
Faqir Chand Bookstore, in particular, has seen an increase in demand for books by Indian authors such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amitav Ghosh, and Arundhati Roy to name a few, in the last 10 years. Their section on books about Delhi, which used to go unnoticed, is now of renewed intrigue. This can be traced back to an increase in consciousness raised online to acknowledge more authors from an Indian background and to actively seek and gain knowledge of one’s socio-cultural history.
In addition to history and poetry, there is not only an increase in demand but also an increase in supply, for feminist theory. Earlier, most bookstores would largely only stock The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir if they were to stock any feminist books at all, however, Faqir Chand Bookstore reports that books such as Seeing Like A Feminist by Nivedita Menon, and All About Love by Bell Hooks have amassed great popularity among their customers now. While this is bridging the gap in that feminist books from across the world were often impossible to find in India, it also highlights how people are now interested in reading Indian perspectives on feminism with Kamala Das’ books being back in print and the smashing success of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence by Shrayana Bhattacharya.
Books which were earlier glossed over, be it on women’s experiences during the partition or on Palestine, are now of interest to those who come to Faqir Chand Bookstore.
FII spoke to Rajni Malhotra of Bahrisons Booksellers, another legacy bookstore which was started by her father-in-law in Delhi in 1953, which has always been an establishment that prides itself on a direct exchange and dialogue between the bookseller and the customer. They are careful in how they curate their selection as per the specific needs of their customers, it is more than just a department store where one can walk in and pick something off the shelf. They make it their priority to know their customers, given that many of them come from a recurring customer base that Bahrisons has built over the years.
In terms of the history of Bahrisons, a noteworthy point of our discussion was how Balraj Bahri, who founded Bahrisons, was new to the trade of bookselling and learned everything he could while on the job. He would ask customers what they were looking for and then accordingly source the books that they were interested in. This resulted in a catalogue of mostly Penguin classics, comic books, and so on when he first started out. Bahrisons’ catalogue grew according to the needs of the hour, and with the trends and current affairs. While people from all walks of life make up Bahrisons’ customer base, it largely consists of diplomats, government ministers, and dignitaries. It is often considered a go-to for overseas people posted in Delhi when they are looking to find a good book to keep them occupied in their spare time, and has also garnered a high reputation amongst ex-pats and government officials.
More recently, younger people and families have taken to visiting Bahrisons due to the collection of children’s literature they have developed. Academics and professors, Indian and non-Indian alike, have begun to send in lists of books they are on the lookout for. Like Faqir Chand Bookstore, Bahrisons Booksellers first opened in Khan Market, where you can find it today as well, however, they have chosen to expand to more cities as they endeavour to provide a good literary experience, across India, that they know only they can.
Literary experience in Delhi continues to be democratised positively, in a way that celebrates the love for reading, for a wider variety of books, to a wider variety of readers today, through increased exposure to a range of literature through the availability of a diverse collection of books that our most lauded bookstores provide by engaging in a dialogue with all who walk through their doors.