An Ode to Simpler Times

By Bhagyashree Das & Anoushka Gera, Batch of 2024

Do you know the feeling of listening to a Kishore Kumar song? The feeling of being transported to a space of easing nostalgia after listening to remixes throughout the whole day? That’s how it feels to discover Faqir Chand Bookstore in Khan Market.

Among the many luxurious brands that take more than two attempts to pronounce, restaurants with blinding neon lights and cafes with French names, sits a family-run bookstore wafting much old-world charm.

The board above the bookstore spells out its name in red letters and says ‘established in 1951′ with pride. A tiny desk sits in the corner while the rest of the bookstore brims with books from floor to ceiling. It would seem as if you are entering another world. One could cruise from kids’ rhymes to Mirza Ghalib’s shayari, Charles Dickens’s timeless classics to Arundhati Roy’s unconventional political essays. Although I must admit, it isn’t the easiest job to find a book by yourself.

Fourth in the lineage and the great-grandson of Mr. Faqir Chand, Abhinav now looks after the bookstore, helping the customers out, conversing with them about books, and recommending his favourites. Having profound love and interest in running the bookstore and carrying forward the legacy of Mr. Faqir Chand, he got introduced into the business in 2015.

Faqir Chand Bookstore originally started as Oriental Book Shop in Peshawar in 1931. With the communal tensions raging during the partition, Mr. Faqir Chand and his family had to flee, leaving their livelihood behind. After coming to Delhi, he and his family migrated from place to place, until they came to Khan Market. Khan Market was established for the rehabilitation of refugees, especially for the NWFP traders. In 1951, Mr. Faqir Chand was allotted a flat and shop where he decided to re-establish his bookstore. As a result of his diligence and good patronage, the business flourished steadily, leaving behind a legacy for the generations to come.

‘We all live in Khan Market here,’ Abhinav says. ‘Out of the seventy-four families, only four families are left. So all the spaces on the first floor where there are restaurants now, they all used to be residential flats. The Khan Market that my parents have witnessed had mostly family-run shops. It was just a regular market selling groceries, but since the last twenty years or so, it has been commercialized into the posh Khan Market that we know today. It’s a different kind of market now, with people coming from all over the world.’

While Khan Market has lost its charm to commercialization, Faqir Chand Bookstore remains as a reminder of the times when people shared intimate relations with books and bookstores.

‘People have been coming here for generations,’ Abhinav says. ‘They get their grandchildren and tell them that they used to come here with their grandparents. People have memories associated with this place. They say that this is the only thing that has remained the same. Everything else has changed. ‘

Many say that urbanization is what India needs to progress and rise in the world to which there is no denying. Yet, an immense part of India resides in such places where the walls tell tales from the years they have seen, where their lineage shines through every crack and pit marring the surface, and the essence of it all is a safe haven.

The question that now arises among most is, how has the bookstore surpassed the pacing urbanization and yet remained relevant in this ever-evolving world of trends? Perhaps, to a non-reader, it may appear to be a very complex question. A non-reader may bring in the impact of the economy, pandemic, and so on. To a reader, it’s simple. Since the moment I entered the bookshop, I felt a certain sense of belonging, a kind of homeliness. That’s perhaps because bookstores have been my homeland, and books have been known to me since a very young age.

But what makes Faqir Chand so exceptional is that it isn’t merely a bookstore with bestseller racks, but a friend to give you book recommendations. A bookstore where you could lurk for hours, browsing through books that aren’t categorized in genres. A bookstore that isn’t fixated on acquiring profit from people who enter the bookstore, it merely looks for people who have a profound love for books and bookstores.

‘We don’t want to make a brand out of it. It’s easy to open another shop and hand it over to staff, but we don’t want that. Because we don’t do it for the profit, we do it for the legacy, for the people who love books,’ he says. ‘We can’t call the people who come here ‘customers’. Book is something really personal. Once I recommend a book to someone, and if they like it, they instantly form a connection with us. A sort of bond develops, and they keep coming back, asking for more recommendations. They become our friends.’

Sometimes, authenticity is the key to remaining relevant in these times, and Faqir Chand bookstore is proof of it.

Modernization also brings in a variety of options for us. Today, there are ebooks and Kindle where one could easily read books, bringing a massive change in the community of readers. In times as such, bookstores may seem irrelevant to a few. I wouldn’t agree with that, and neither would most book-lovers.

‘In between, there was a phase where people were getting into ebooks, but now people are getting back. People like to smell books, be present in a bookstore. People who like to read books, read books and not online copies. There is an attachment that forms with a physical book.’ he says. ‘Surprisingly, after the lockdown, walk-ins have improved. People want to buy books from a bookstore and not order online. It’s easy to order online, but the human experience in a bookstore is what makes people come back. One can never change the feel of a bookstore.’

Social media is yet another advent of urbanization. In this case, social media has worked in our favour as the way I discovered Faqir Chand bookstore was through social media. I happened to stumble upon one of their posts and got immediately drawn to their old-charm atmosphere.

‘My friends forced me to join Instagram. I never really liked it,’ Abhinav laughs. ‘ But through Instagram, I have met some beautiful people so now I enjoy it. In 2019, I started the account. We didn’t want to take it to social media because this isn’t a very social media-worthy place. But, the response was really good. Now, I am grateful to that friend who initiated this.’

Social media has brought many people to this very beautiful kitaabkhana, a memorandum for the old and a safe sanctuary for the young.

In the hub of Delhi’s lavish Khan Market is its oldest shop-Faqir Chand bookstore, where time stands still, only the books come and go. As we come to the end of our conversation, I ask, ‘How has your experience been?’ He replies softly with a smile, ‘It’s beautiful every day here.’