Monday, February 21, 2011

Bookstores by the Bay


Cities–like the people in them–do not live by bread alone. They need mind and soul food to grow into the vibrant entities that they become. Mumbai has been given its mind food–in the form of stories, novels, pamphlets, athletic rule books, comics and other literary whatnots–by a small band of dedicated bookshops which have been around for 50 years and more. Growing organically with the city, these bookshops have seen it all, and with time, become landmarks in themselves.

A smoky corner of the world 
The wonderful, timeless Smoker’s Corner is cleverly laid out in the foyer of Botawala Mansion just outside Ballard Estate, the city’s heritage business district. Suleiman Botawala (76) says, “I bought Smoker’s in 1959 from the original British owners who sold tobacco. Since I loved reading, I slowly changed to books. In those days, P M Road was a two-way street, and it was washed clean regularly.”
There is a clean-cut, spare sort of elegance to the shop, with the display arranged neatly in shelves of lovely, rich teak. A piece of string holds the flap of each book shut – to prevent the covers from getting dog-eared, Botawala explains.

Where are his rarest books, I ask. “All in my house!” he replies with a chuckle. “The moment I spot a rare or unique book, I hold on to it till a customer comes and asks for it. Then I usually gift it to them.” Gift it? Whatever happened to the economics of book selling?
“I’ve sold a lot, and besides, sharing books is the greatest joy in life. Here I’ve met some of the most interesting people in the city and I’ve learned so much from each of them. This is my way of giving back something.” One of his customers in the ’80s, a learned, unassuming man, turned out to be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was then the Governor of the nearby Reserve Bank of India.
Botawala is never in your face, making it a policy ‘not to interfere’ with customers. However, he also knows his regulars’ tastes, and always has a treat saved for them. Knowing my fondness for obscure Russian children’s books, he gets me a stack of his oldest.
Botawala is genuinely delighted by the new books stores. “They will surely click, because reading is popular once again. Only their prices are forbidding.”
He shows me a thick, aged book of quotations called Noble Thoughts in Noble Languages and smiles, “New shops may have a mind-boggling range of best-sellers, but they don’t have real treasures like these!” [Mr Botawala passed away in 2009. His son Zubair now manages the shop.]

Where the price is always right
Just further down the road from Smoker’s, is Strand Book Stall, another treasure-trove. Here they pride themselves on their consistently low pricing. “We keep the thinnest of margins,” says P M Shenvi (60), the ever-smiling manager. “That’s how we sell many books at less than half their prices, and give 20% off on others. Our aim is to be affordable and we curtail all other expenses towards that. No fancy décor for us!” Despite that, Strand’s book-lined walls have a distinctive ambience. It’s a combination of courtesy, efficiency and the lingering smell of new books.
Strand’s founder, T N Shanbag [who passed away in February 2009], was perhaps the only bookseller to have won a UNESCO award and a Padmashri. “As a young graduate,” Shenvi recounts, “Shanbag was once asked to stop browsing in a bookshop and leave unless he bought something. He dreamt of setting up a bookshop someday that would keep its doors open to browsers – even those without the money to buy.”
Shanbag eventually set up a bookstall with a capital of Rs 450/- in 1948. He rented a small space inside Strand Cinema with the permission of K K Modi, its owner. Shenvi adds, “Later in 1954 we moved here, thanks in part to Justice M C Chagla’s help.” The roster of Strand’s patrons includes names like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sir Ambalal Sarabhai, R K Narayan, Graham Greene, J R D Tata and Nani Palkiwala.
Things have changed with time. “Before, people preferred classics, but now management and self-help books are popular… And back then, our biggest landmarks were Flora Fountain, Handloom House and Khadi Gramudyog,” Shenvi observes.
Does he consider the new chain bookshops competition? “They are good, but you find the same stocks everywhere. I feel that we are really different. Our interest lies more in encouraging reading, in promoting books.”
And as someone who has spent hours browsing at Strand without buying anything at all, I can certainly vouch for that!

Up next, some sporting action
Mumbai is also home to one of the three bookshops in the world that are exclusively devoted to books on sports. Marine Sports, currently located in Dadar, was started on Marine Drive in 1946 by Bruno Braganza. His son Theo Braganza (58) says, “Dad sold sporting goods, but found the cut-throat competition too much.”
So how did the idea for the switch come up? “He used to love reading, and used to go to sports meets. There he found a demand for rule books, and began importing them. By 1956 we had shifted to Dadar and converted to exclusively selling books on sports. Dadar was something of a cricket hub then,” says the genial Braganza.
Though he was trained to be an engineer, Braganza joined Marine Sports in 1972, when his father grew unwell. He also did a course in publishing, combining his interests in books and sports. “Cricketers and other sportsmen have always come to Marine... Gavaskar was a regular. Before any match he would read up on his opponents. Once, before leaving for Australia, he asked me for a book which was sold out. Dad refused to order just one copy. But I insisted because I felt it would make a positive contribution to Gavaskar’s growth. That’s when I realized that what we were really more than just another business.”
And Marine Sports had indeed created mindspace for a whole generation of sports fans, players, young journalists and officials. Braganza says, “Till the ’80s, sports lovers used to buy all kinds of sports books. But after that, with the rising prices, they became selective.” Currently, Braganza reprints and distributes books to institutes and dealers; and buys and sells rare sports books.
What does Braganza miss about the old Mumbai? “Every weekend, Kalbadevi used to have a sprawling book market. We should to revive it, because there is enough interest. If it can happen in Daryaganj in Delhi, then why not here?”
Why not, indeed. Anyone listening?

The grand-daddy of them all
For sheer age and volume of books though, there’s nothing quite like the New and Second Hand Book Store. Shelves and racks in the medium-sized shop are lined with obscure, fascinating old books. Firoze Vishram (65), the owner Sultan Vishram’s brother, takes out a meticulously-written list of their really rare books. A 1711 edition of The Lucubrations by Sir Isaac Bickerstaff is the oldest.
Outside the shop is a wall display of old books for 10/- and 20/-. You’re sure to find a gem or two here. “People sometimes tell us that we sell our books too cheap,” says Vishram. “But we are not interested in huge profits. We buy low and sell low. My grandfather Jamalbhai Rattansey began this business in 1905. He bought books by weight and sold them very cheap. One client, Magistrate Oscar Brown, would sift through the books and correct the pricing, suggesting that some were worth more.”
Currently, the shop is owned by Rattansey’s grandson Sultan Vishram (67). But over the years, the one constant in the shop has been Chandrakant Mankame, its manager of 60 years. Retired now, Vishram recommends that I meet him.
At 75, Mankame is energetic and alert. “I joined the shop as a cleaner in 1944, when my father died. I was 9. One day when the salesman was absent I helped a customer find a book. The owner spotted my interest in books, and encouraged me. Later he put me in charge. I took the responsibility very seriously till I retired in 2005.”
Mankame also developed an eye for rare books. “I felt that books spoke to me when I opened them. I bought up people’s old collections till the walls were completely filled. My guides were people like H S Mardhani (one of the previous owners) and Arun Tikekar.”
Even as we talk, a lady walks in asking for an old book. She has heard that any book in the world can be found here. It’s a formidable reputation to have. Not for nothing, I guess, have Rajneesh, V K Krishna Menon, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Ali Yavar Jang all stopped to browse here.
(The New and Secondhand Bookshop has just shut down. Putting this piece here in memory…)

This was written in Dec 2007 for the Mumbai International Airport’s magazine. Coordinated by Bijal at the Paprika Media Team. 

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