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You know how you can tell a lot about a person from the kind of home they keep? If you peer in through an open doorway and glimpse soft lights, a welcoming armchair, and ornaments that would have adorned your house if you had found them, then you do not hesitate to knock on the door. Or, you could see the same furniture that you own, but arranged with so much precision and in such perfect alignment that you, a diehard clutterer and messer-up of all spaces, do not dare to step over the threshold because you believe that home-owner is just not your type!

We experience something similar with shops too.

Some shops beckon you in with the sheer variety of the goods they display. There are some that don’t have much on show but you can see from the eager bounce of the person on the other side of the counter that you will not go away unhappy.

Then there are shops that you feel guilty to call a mere “shop”. They are neat as a pin, sparkling, and so well-ordered and super-stylish that ordinary people like me, with slightly scuffed shoes, a sling bag that has seen better days, and a persona that definitely needs a makeover would hesitate to enter for fear of being snubbed — or made over!

Or the shop could be attractive, even enticing, but the owner could exude vibes that say, “Enter only if you know what you want! I have no time for browsers!” And where’s the fun of discovery and the thrill of the unexpected if you cannot browse?

Well, we found plenty of thrills in some of the shops we encountered in the course of our recent travels.

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Tucked away in the midst of a busy market, hemmed in by other shops selling similar souvenirs and trinkets and odds and ends for tourists, we chanced upon a delightful den of surprises. I had no idea what the shop was named but I had no desire to pop out for even a second to look at the board outside, so engrossed was I in the tiny treasures all around.

Others had scoured through the offerings on display and left them here and there, but there was a chaotic charm to the shelves, every one of which made us pause and linger and fill our little basket with things we had not planned to buy! Surely this shop owner, busily running up the cash register and unable to exchange more than a few words with us, had a sense of humour, a deep respect for the indigenous people and a love of the unexpected. How else would she decide to stock all those unique delights?

It was probably a good thing that the next such wonder-world we came across was shut for the weekend. Because, as I stood outside and pressed my nose against the glass as would a child peering longingly into a showcase full of candy, I knew that it would have been almost impossible to tear myself away from the happy mess of second-hand books (priced at a mere dollar or two each) piled on shelves, on the floor and in the aisles!

It was obvious that the owner of this store not only loved those books but also loved the written word enough to want to share it with others at an affordable rate!

He/she would surely have had a lot in common with the field librarian in Kerala whose zest to spread the love for reading was covered in the newspapers recently. She, despite being a senior with age-related ailments, keeps the library and herself going by delivering books to members on foot!

Such zest is universal, it seems, and also universally inspiring.

— Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.