An Ode to a Book Lover
By Kamal Sunavala

I don't know or don't perhaps remember who said this but somewhere in one of the many bookshops in Prague I had chanced upon these words and I paraphrase: All mankind is a book. When one man dies, the chapter is not over, it is merely translated. I remember that afternoon perfectly. I was in one of the alleyways just off Narodni Divadlo. I remember walking into a bookshop simply because it said rozebrané knihy.

The reason I am writing this is my strange relationship with a seventy-year old gentleman called Pavel. He owned a bookstore in Prague, not in the fashionable parts, but in Českomoravská. I sat with his son at an airport coffee shop in Dubai. He was passing through and I went to meet him while he waited to continue on to Alexandria. Pavel had requested it, saying I owed him that much for wasting his time most Friday afternoons. Pavel was my source of rozebrané knihy. Out of print books. Thanks to him I own a 100-year-old edition of John Donne. Something I could never have found here. Pavel's son, Vítek was on an antiquarian expedition for books in Egypt and was delighted to meet with the woman who spent so much time wandering around his father's near-dilapidated bookstore. Shelves so dusty it was a wonder my asthma didn't come on. The wood so old, I could practically see the years of snow embedded deep into the planks. And cream coloured heavy pages bound in old smelly leather littered haphazardly while Pavel wrote letters on an old typewriter to people who were probably dead.

Vítek asked if we could go to the airport bookstore and I nearly had a panic attack. I warned him. He said he was up to the task. But I knew he was being merely brave. After about half an hour, I saw a grown man about to cry. Now you may think I am exaggerating but does pain have to translate into tears? He asked if people here read at all and I said yes. What did they read, he asked. New books, I replied. Popular books, prize winning books, books about poppadums and flirty girls and Lonely Planet guides and business books about people who'd like to buy the world a Coke. We smiled sadly and I patted his hand in sympathy while we returned to drinking coffee.

What about classics, he pressed on. I assured him that Magrudy's, the local bookstore chain, had them. If you mean Austen and Shakespeare, certainly, we had them. If you meant Landor and John Donne and C S Lewis and Yeats and Pepys then you would have to order them. Don't people browse while they have a cup of coffee and a cigarette, he asked, as he saw people rushing through books and aisles and ringing up the bestsellers. I had to suddenly battle tears as I thought of my time at his father's bookshop and for that matter even at the Globe with my like-minded friends. I told him of the time when his father was unwell and there was a group of American tourists looking for Bohumil Hrabal and Vladimir Nabokov. And he nudged them toward me. They thought I was the salesgirl in the shop. To me, that was my most precious memory in the store. I guided them to the section on the left and then to the section at the back, which had a few books of Nabokov with his notes on Lolita. They were amazed and bought all the copies. As I proudly handed them their purchases, his father joked and said that if ever his son were to go into an ugly business which had nothing to do with books, he would leave his bookshop to me. Vitek smiled at his father's sense of humour and tears filled his eyes. We sat quietly, lost in our thoughts. He told me, quickly, regretfully that the bookshop was no longer functioning. Everyone had left, for better money, for greener pastures, and the debts were large.

I wondered how many such bookshops had met with the same fate. As I looked at the gleaming Magrudy's, I thought, why don't horrid 'megastores' like that go out of business? Why is literature cruel to those who love it? It was time for Vitek to go.

We hugged and I noticed that he had begun to smell like his father. He handed me a small package before he went out of sight. I tore it open in the cab on my way home. A first edition of C. S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy.

Thank you, Pavel. Rest in peace, you old, romantic fool.

Read Kamal's Tongue-in-Czech stories from Prague.