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A Life In Bookshops

In praise of independent booksellers

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I spent every summer of my childhood in the little town in Goa, India, where my grandparents lived. The town was filled with houses built in the Luso Portuguese style, and every household had its own well from which to draw water, its own mango trees and its own dogs, pigs, and hens. When we visited from Delhi, then already a big city, we children were expected to entertain ourselves. Let loose in the morning, we roamed the quiet empty streets looking for adventure — mangoes to pick, friends to walk with, a scrum on the church football field.

To this I added, by around the age of six or so, a visit to Confidant, the only place in the town that sold books. Here I found books by my favorite children’s author Ruskin Bond who lived in the hills above Delhi. High up on a shelf that I was not meant to reach sat the novels of Shobhaa De, a glamorous socialite whose books were considered scandalously risqué and that became, therefore, instant bestsellers.

Confidant was a warren of rooms with low ceilings. There was no natural light and not much space to manoeuvre. The books were arranged by size rather than subject, with the largest at the bottom of each pile to support the smallest. Through these piles I happily wandered. The owner was always on hand to offer suggestions and reviews. But even then, selling books was a financially risky business. To bolster his income the owner set up a side business writing advertisements for the newspapers. You went to him for help with an advert for a maid, a secondhand car, a math tutor.

Confidant’s cool dark rooms were a balm from the baking sun. Passers-by streamed in weighed down by shopping bags. They congregated at the cash counter where the owner sat peering at the world through heavy-rimmed glasses. What did they talk about, I now wonder? Goa was then still only two decades liberated from Portuguese rule, so politics was surely on everyone’s mind. People came and went, and no one bothered me.

Confidant had no equivalent in Delhi, the city that I returned reluctantly to at the end of every summer. The market closest to us sold books in shops that were sleek, refined, air conditioned. The owners were on hand here too, but they were aloof. There appeared to be a great distance between them and the books they sold and therefore between them and their customers. The books here arrived from England. They were expensive. The children’s section was stacked with Enid Blytons. I felt simultaneously alone and watched and would often pluck the first book that caught my eye and hurry with it to the cash counter. I suppose these upscale bookshops were a precursor to the chains that would dominate the city from the 2000s. The shops could be selling anything; they just happened to sell books.

It was many years later that I was able to reclaim the feeling that buying books in Confidant had inspired in me. I was in my twenties and visiting London. Walking through the city I found myself by the barges at Paddington and then in a royal park, where the enormous size of the squirrels amazed me, before finally emerging in Notting Hill where traders had set up tables full of knick-knacks. I was bargaining over a small skull-shaped curio carved out of glass when an elegant storefront caught my eye.

Lutyens & Rubinstein was just a nook, or so it seemed to me, but through the glass windows I observed that the woman behind the counter was engrossed in a book. What a great advert she was for her shop I thought, drawn immediately inside. The woman looked up briefly, greeted me, and then went right back to her book. I was curious. Whatever was she reading? It was someone called Alan Hollinghurst.

I had by this time made a conscious effort to read books by writers whose experiences reflected mine. This was in part to compensate for my childhood and teenage years when virtually all the books in English available to me were by western writers. When they did write about India, their experiences sounded unfamiliar. But I was also trying to understand myself, who I was, and where I came from at a time when it had become clear that I would leave India and move through the world. I didn’t want to lose myself, but before that even happened, I had to find out who I was. So, I read Gandhi and Nehru and Naidu and Desai and Seth and Tagore and Mistry. I had never heard of Hollinghurst.

Happy to be left alone I slipped down the stairs to look up this person. He occupied an entire shelf. I sat down on the floor, crossed my legs comfortably, and began to read. Some chapters later I realised that the woman above hadn’t come looking for me. I didn’t feel the need to get up either; such is the unspoken understanding between readers.

I ended up buying several Hollinghursts and with that my quest to discover London came to a sort of end. I would spend every day in the park reading, interrupted by nobody apart from the occasional friendly dog. Through books by Hollinghurst, and more recently Peter Ackroyd, Sam Sevlon, Bernardine Evaristo, Candice Carty-Williams and Diana Evans, I discovered a city and the place that is now my home.

Last winter I travelled to Florence to promote Le Brave Ragazze, the Italian translation of my third book, The Good Girls. I was used to giving interviews at home, at literary festivals, and in hotels. Surprisingly, given my profession, few people requested to meet at a bookshop. But my publicist at Neri Pozza set up an interview at Todo Modo, an independent bookshop located in the perfumed quarter of Santa Maria Novella. The shop looked tiny – perhaps most independent bookshops are – but what it lacked in breadth it made up for in length, being a series of long twisty-turvy rooms filled with books in Italian and English. At some tables out back the journalist and I drank wine, ate pasta and talked and talked. The words came out in a tumble; surrounded by the things I loved best, I felt free to be myself.

Then, in late 2022, I happened to be in Goa and decided to look in on Confidant. I was amused to see that it hadn’t changed at all. The shop still sold advertisements and the books were still packed tight. I stumbled from one poky room to the next, as convinced as I had ever been that I would find the perfect book for me. On the drive back I decided to stop by my grandparents’ house. I had avoided visiting the spot for many years for I knew that after the death of my grandparents, the beautiful old house with its well, hen coop and yard full of flowers had been demolished. I heard an apartment building was built in its place.

The building was rather unappealing, it’s true. The ground floor was shopfronts and above lived lawyers and teachers. But then I noticed something rather wonderful. In the corner of the building, where once stood my grandparent’s living room, with its ornately carved furniture and billowing lace curtains, there was a bookshop. An independent bookshop full of a delightful assortment of books, many of them by local writers. And behind the counter sat a woman who glanced up at me with a smile and then went right back to reading the book in her hands.

Sonia Faleiro is the author of one novel and two books of nonfiction, most recently The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, which was nominated for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize and the ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. Faleiro is the program director of the literary incubator South Asia Speaks.

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