I remember when Sarasavi Bookshop was a messy, crowded little store in Nugegoda, always full of jostling bodies and elbows. Going in for a leisurely browse was out of the question - it was a functional sort of shop and you generally went in there for a specific purpose - unless you were an afterschool loiterer (I recall there being a pretty good selection of Archie comics back then).
A large portion of the old Sarasavi's customers comprised of parents and schoolkids who used it as a one stop shop for all their back to school needs. This was partly because they offered a huge range of stationery but also because it was conveniently located next to the St Johns Boys School and Samudradevi Balikamahavidyala, and quite close St. Josephs and Anula Vidyalaya.
There used to be bookshelves sporadically scattered around, interspersed with greeting card stands, tall towers of coloured paper and shelf after shelf of blank notebooks. They were various teetering columns of fiction, but you'd have to squash tightly between shelves and try very hard not to knock things over while leafing through.
There was also these vitrines in the centre of the shop, arranged so as to make out a large glass square. Inside this square would be three or four members of staff, and if you wanted any of the lovely Faber Castell colours, Maped erasers or Uniball pens you'd have to peer through and play a little game with the guy seeing if he could correctly pick out the one you were pointing to.
Sarasavi Bookshop has now expanded, both across Colombo and within Nugegoda. The messy little shop in Nuge has now grown into two neat, well organized stores - one specifically for stationery and the other just for books. The stationery store remains in the original Sarasavi, and it's much better laid out than it used to be. Buying your things is no longer a battle, and you can easily see where everything is. We discovered that they have some lovely, old ledgers, with pretty blue and red prints. These are hidden at the bottom left of the ledger section, and they're much nicer than the new, modern ones.
The new bookshop is a five storied behemoth, towering over Samudradevi Mawatha and making it a nightmare to get up or down the road - especially at schooltime. But despite the inconvenience this shop causes, it's actually a pretty good place. They used to have a classics section on the first floor but it seems to have been replaced with an enormous collection of those slim spined, easy to read easy to forget Mills and Boons romance novels (also easy to buy at just Rs. 200).
Like with the early Sarasavi, the books in this shop are still quite functional. They have seas of textbooks and general study aids. In terms of casual fiction reading, there isn't too much to kindle your desire to grab a book and run home with it. In Sri Lanka, we don't have fully comprehensive bookshops, therefore the content requires some level of curation. You can see this at the Barefoot bookshop, which has an excellent selection, displaying the kind of books you didn't even realise you wanted to read until you come across it; the more inspirational sort, essentially.
That being said, the fourth floor of Sarasavi is quite nice. It's darker and softer, removed from the other brightly lit floors, housing all those classics that were ousted by the Mills and Boons. This is an area you could actually spend some time in - and it has a couple of couches for you to sit down if you wanted to do so. There's also a pretty interesting section consisting of writing on Ceylon from the 19th century. These are old books that have been reprinted recently - so the covers look tacky and pretentious, but the books themselves are actually incredibly fascinating. If you're researching the country this could be quite useful - and better than sneezing away in a dusty archive somewhere.
Sarasavi Bookshop and it's stationery sister are two good shops. In terms of a bookshop, this is nowhere near the international standard, but in terms of Sri Lanka it's not so bad. And they've recently introduced an online ordering service which is surprisingly pretty decent.
You can order online through their website and you get free delivery for purchases above Rs. 1000.