Some places feel intimately familiar even if you have never been there before. Tucked into a decrepit alley on Tottee Lane in New Market — a stone’s throw from Hotel Plaza where Rabindranath Tagore used to be a guest — Bookline, a 32-year-old bookstore, is one such place. For those who have grown up surrounded by books and immersed in the world of imagination, Bookline will feel like a place they have known forever.
Small and humble from the outside with a small panel carrying its name, Bookline has interiors that seem to expand with every step you take. From the ceiling to the shelves, from the floor to the walls, everywhere you look, there are books — of all shapes, sizes and eras. Once you enter, you will find classics from European and Indian literature greeting you on your right. Across the larger space on your left are books on space, travel, sports and politics. As you slowly edge your way into the store, you will discover titles on history, art, fashion, cooking, nature and much more. With every pace, there are scores of books that you are unlikely to find anywhere else in the city to touch, smell and sample.
‘For me to bring a book here, it has to amaze me, make me curious’
Most of the books at Bookline have been handpicked by Brijesh over decades
“There are more than one lakh books in this store, most of which I’ve curated and stocked across my life. For me to bring a book here, it has to amaze me, make me curious,” says Brijesh Tiwari, 51, who has been managing Bookline’s operations as owner since 1994. Bookline’s journey began as Modern Book Emporium under Brijesh’s father, Dinanath Tiwari, and has now spanned three generations with Brijesh’s son, Anubhav, 26, also helping out on a regular basis.
‘Spoon’, one of the weightiest and most interesting items in the Bookline collection
Much like the store, Brijesh’s personality and literary knowledge grow on you, slowly but surely. Without being prompted, he picks out half a dozen books and plants them on his desk, each starkly different from the other. He first scans through Spoon, a book with a metal cover that takes some lifting, stocked as it is with the work of “100 forward-looking and ground-breaking designers” of the 21st century. Priced at Rs 4,000, Spoon is a marvel to look at, each page unfurling beauty, brilliance and a bespoke charm.
With its array of interactive features, ‘Stargazer’ can even pass off as a video game
Next, Brijesh delicately handles The Woodbook, by Romeyn Beck Hough and Ulrich Leistikow, a fascinating facsimile of Hough’s American Woods, which is a masterclass in the study of trees and wood. The enthusiasm in Brijesh’s voice goes up a couple of notches as he shifts his attention to Stargazer, a book that could easily pass off as a video game, with its array of interactive features from lighting to pointers to maps that trace the movement of stars in the solar system. Its positioning may no longer be accurate in 2022, but it has not ceased to thrill.
‘Friends and family would choose books that kept a person occupied from the womb to the tomb’
The famous balcony scene from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with gilded borders
Running his fingers along the borders of an illustration of Romeo and Juliet, Brijesh says: “These borders are made of gold, and this book was imported from the UK. A lot of my books come from abroad because I’ve been able to cultivate relationships with niche publishers who are happy to send over some of their most unique works that readers in India can enjoy.” At Rs 595, the Shakespearean masterpiece is one among countless books that stimulate the eyes and the mind alike. Another such specimen is Gun: 100 Greatest Firearms, co-authored by David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily (Rs 1,900), which captures everything from the cannons and matchlock muskets of the 1500s to the latest military technology in an awe-inspiring coffee-table read.
“Books that you see here might sell out immediately or wait for 15 years before finding the right reader,” chuckles Brijesh. “Earlier, books used to be an integral part of gifting. Friends and family would choose books that kept a person occupied from the womb to the tomb. That culture has changed with the rise of the digital, a change we’ve also adapted to,” explains Brijesh, citing Bookline’s presence on Amazon.
Excerpts from Arun Dey’s “labour of love” for his friend Brijesh
In between showing us his peculiarly shaped tea cups and a hand-designed diary of sketches that he received from his friend Arun Dey in 2013, Brijesh talks about the customers he has today: “Most of the people who visit our store in person find out about us by word of mouth. After their first visit, they usually keep coming back and recommend us to more and more people. I’m grateful for the loyalty and love that our regular customers show us. Over time, they’ve become more like family.”
‘There are still plenty of young people who read books’
Brijesh with his son Anubhav, who is the latest generation of the Tiwari family to look after Bookline
But what about young readers, who have apparently migrated to reading on the Kindle, tablets and smartphones? “That’s not entirely true. There are still plenty of young people who read books, who adore the smell and the feel of the page and who keep returning here to get books they’ll not get anywhere else,” replies Brijesh, whose shorthand for everything his store contains is “method in the madness”.
John Lennon, as featured in ‘LIFE’
Asked to choose his favourite books, Brijesh falls silent for the first time, like a parent asked to choose between their children. He eventually says: “I love non-fiction and enjoy reading history, particularly the works on the Mughals by Jadhunath Sarkar and the history of the Nazis by William Shirer.” Even before he has finished his sentence, Brijesh is off to dazzle us further with his collection. This time he comes back with a glorious album of the Romanovs, the imperial house of Russia that reigned between 1613 and 1917. There is more. Sandwiched between the redemptive story of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Aileen Reid’s biography of notorious artist Aubrey Beardsley (known for his illustrations and his association with Oscar Wilde) is a copy of the erstwhile LIFE magazine with John Lennon on its cover. A gentle half-smile from Brijesh is enough to suggest that these are among his most cherished possessions.
Navigating the maze of books around him, Brijesh keeps unloading tidbits about everything that meets the eye, not unlike a kid displaying his immense toy collection. As we scan Bookline for the final time, it emanates a feeling of organised chaos. Organised because parts of it are immaculately arranged, sorted and aligned, with every book in its precise slot. Chaotic because other parts are liberated from any form or order, with accounts of Joseph Stalin nestling alongside those of Margaret Thatcher as seamlessly as a WWE comic lying beside the Kama Sutra. And that, ultimately, is the enduring appeal of Bookline, a bookstore that is more like a library, which could be many things at once but is, above all, a place where the mind can wander however it wants.