Books, Memories

On Bookstores

If you lived in Bangalore anytime between 1970 and 2010 and loved reading and purchasing books, you have probably been receiving forwards in various WhatsApp groups about the recent demise of Mr. T. S. Shanbhag. Mr. Shanbhag was the owner of Premier Bookshop on Church Street, Bangalore, and was an institution to himself. He, sadly, like many others in India, was a victim of the virus.

My brother who is an academic and also runs his private practice is usually too busy to surf the web or read non-subject-related books. However, the recent lockdown has meant that he has some time on his hands. In a reversal of roles, he has been forwarding numerous articles to me on Mr. Shanbhag as well as the noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray (whose birth centenary fell on May 2 this year). During our phone call yesterday, we reminisced about Premier Bookshop and various other bookshops we used to frequent when we were growing up. It was an enjoyable conversation filled with wonderful memories and as with many other conversations with my brother, it led me to write this piece.

My earliest memory of any kind of bookshop is that of “Sridhar Book Shop” and “Sri Devi Stationery Stores” on Residency Road in Bangalore. I started visiting them in the mid-seventies along with my father and brother to buy textbooks. The school year ran from January through December and so it would usually be on a chilly January Bangalore morning that I would find myself in the store with a booklist in hand. I only had to buy textbooks if I already did not have a copy passed down by my brother or my neighbor, Deepu. There would be a throng of parents and excited young boys and girls jostling for space at the counter. Sometimes, I would meet a classmate and we would chat happily while our parents bought the books. I never read my textbooks before school started, but I would flip through them and look at the pictures, especially in the History and Geography textbooks. Over the years, the stores just became “Sri Devi” and “Sridhar” to us.

The Bible Society Building that used to house the Book Tract and Book Society. (Photo credit: Facebook page of The Bible Society)

When it came to non-textbooks, an early memory is of the “Bangalore Tract and Book Society” (BTBS) on St. Marks Road. We used to refer to it as the “Bible Society”, the institution that owned the Tudor style building in which BTBS was housed. My father was very particular about sending birthday cards to relatives and my brother and I would stop by at the store to buy greeting cards on our way home from school. We would also buy books as birthday gifts for my cousins and friends. I would peruse through the books longingly picking up Enid Blytons, Hardy Boys, and Asterix and Obelix comics as gifts. I would have loved to have owned these books. As far as I can remember, my parents encouraged us to read voraciously but buying new books was not done. Perhaps it was an expense that a tight budget would not permit in the ration economy of the 1970s and 1980s. We had to satisfy ourselves by borrowing books from the library or looking forward to visits from my grandfather who over the years gifted us some lovely books.

I would pass by Premier Bookshop on my way to and from school. My school was just down the road and sometimes in the evening or on a Saturday afternoon, I would pass Mr. Shanbhag standing at the entrance of the store. We would nod a greeting and carry on. Perhaps the first book I bought there was Jim Corbett’s “Jungle Lore” for my friend on his birthday sometime in 1979 or 1980. While the BTBS had a lot of space and the books were neatly arrayed, Premier Bookshop had books all over the place. There were books on the shelves, but there were piles of books on the floor. There might have been a system but it was not apparent to me. However, there was nothing to fear, Mr. Shanbhag had his own Dewey Decimal system in his brain and he would unerringly fish out the book that one wanted. There was an India Coffee House outlet across the street and as my brother pointed out, memories of Premier are also suffused with the aroma of ground coffee wafting across the street.

A footpath Bookseller in Bombay. (Photo courtesy: Dr Balkrishna (Bakin) Nayak)

While we rarely bought books for ourselves in Bangalore, there were fewer constraints when we visited Bombay. My grandparents lived in Kings Circle and there were second-hand booksellers who set up their stalls on the pavements near the Maheshwari Udyan (formerly known as Kings Circle). My grandmother would give us bus fare whenever we had to visit my cousins at Shivaji Park and she would also throw in some extra money to buy a cold Lassi or Mangola (mango-flavored soft drink) to keep us cool during the hot Bombay summers. We would however skip the bus ride and walk the distance crossing over the Monkey Bridge in Matunga. The money saved over the duration of our stay when pooled with some cash gifts from generous uncles and aunts would enable us to buy second-hand books from the footpath stalls.

What a collection they had! They spanned many genres and there were books for all age groups. Some of these books were probably sourced from the old Parsi families that lived close by at Five Gardens. On one trip my brother, an avid stamp collector, managed to find a Stanley Gibbon Stamp Catalog copy. We now had a resource to look up our stamps and find out if they were part of a series and get additional information about them. This was of great help in the pre-internet days. On one trip, I happened to find a two-volume Readers Digest compilation on World War 2. Amongst many other war-related articles, this was my introduction to legendary British pilots such as Douglas Bader, Leonard Cheshire, and Guy Gibson. I would go on to read other books on them after this introduction. My brother also found a copy of “Colditz” by P.R. Reid which was added gratefully to our collection of war books.

These second-hand books left an indelible impression on me and I still prefer to purchase second-hand books whenever possible. The content of books indeed is what matters, but there is something about a hard-bound old edition with a dust jacket that I find irresistible. Abebooks is a favorite of mine largely because it is a good source of books by British authors that I read predominantly while growing up. Incidentally, Bombay also had some fantastic books shops, including the famous “Strand” owned by Mr. T.N. Shanbhag, the uncle, and mentor of Mr. T.S. Shanbhag of Premier fame. When I lived in India, my budget never permitted me to buy books from these stores but I’ve been a grateful recipient of many books from these stores all courtesy of my cousin Bakin. Given Bakin’s fantastic collection of books (perhaps one that rivals many book stores), I would love to read his musings on book shops if he ever decides to pen them at some point in the future!

Higginbothams as rendered by the inimitable Paul Fernandes (Photo source: Bangalore – Swinging in the 70s by Paul Fernandes)

Higginbothams and the Gangarams Book Bureau both situated on MG Road were also places that I started visiting especially when I finished High School and moved to the Pre University College which was on the same campus. All these stores were conveniently located close to my college and I would drop in on Saturdays or during free periods to flip through the books. There was no pressure from the sales staff. Time seemed to flow at a much slower pace then and I would spend an hour or two just flipping through the books. Gangarams was located on multiple floors and when I joined my engineering course, I would frequent the floor that housed the textbooks. Bangaloreans will also remember with sadness the collapse of the Gangarams Building next to Kapali Theatre in 1983. The son of the owner was amongst the casualties. Sapna Book House at Majestic, another Bangalore landmark, was out of the way for me and I visited it rarely. I remember dropping into the Select Book Shop on Brigade Road but don’t remember ever buying a book there. In fact, the area around Church Street and MG Road was a Mecca for bibliophiles. Speaking of Mecca, another landmark was Mecca Stores on Commercial Street. My wife used to frequent the store to pick her favorites.

I did mention that we did not buy new books, however, the exception to this rule was when the Russian Book Exhibition came into town. At the height of the cold war, Soviet propaganda took the form of beautifully illustrated books printed on high-quality paper that were sold at rock bottom subsidized prices throughout India. These included books by Russian publishers such as Mir and their Indian collaborators such as Navakarnataka Publications. We received the first set of books from my grandfather who brought them down for us from Bombay on one of his visits. A collection of stories by Anton Chekov, “Mother” by Maxim Gorky, a collection of stories by O’Henry, and an excellent collection of Nineteenth-Century Short American Stories by various authors such as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe. Ironically, in my opinion, the last mentioned, the American collection of short stories was the best book in the collection.

A Mir Publication bought by my brother

I never read Maxim Gorky but I did read the others when I grew a little older. My brother also picked up a book on Human Anatomy and Physiology that he still has at home. It had excellent illustrations. I bought a few children’s books at one of the exhibitions but they were a disappointment. Many of the stories featured a witch called “Baba Yaga” or a simpleton called Ivan. These just did not hold my interest as much as the Panchatantra or Jataka Tales that I used to read then. Perhaps one of the last books I bought was called “Physics for Entertainment” by an author called Ya Perelman. All the brainy kids in my class were reading the book and talking about it. Sadly, I did not find it entertaining.

There was a period of time around the early 2000s when we would frequent Sankars on State Bank Road. My brother used to practice at the Specialists Clinic next door. After making our rounds of the MG Road and Brigade Road area, we would spend time at Sankars flipping through books while we waited for him to close his clinic. I bought the entire Secret Seven and Famous Five series for my daughter there along with a host of other books by Enid Blyton. My brother also gifted me my cherished Two Volume Jim Corbett and Ken Anderson omnibuses from Sankars. Another cherished gift from my brother was a series of prints of paintings by the English artist William Hodges. Featuring landscapes of India and painted in the late 18th century, these framed prints now adorn our living room. Sankars in particular holds fond memories for me as that was the book store we frequented the most as a family and our daughter, in particular, enjoyed picking up books of interest to her.

Bookmark from Sankars

Over the years, I made a few trips to Premier Bookshop during my trips home. I was free to buy books now but the constraint was the baggage allowance. My wife and I went through a phase of buying cookbooks and we would happily rummage through the books looking for interesting ones. My last trip to Premier Bookshop was in 2007. I was looking for issues of “Classics Illustrated” for my daughter. Mr. Shanbhag smiled when I asked him if he had any copies. “Those are old books and are not available now,” he said, “but I might have a couple of reprints”. And sure enough from somewhere he conjured up copies of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “The Red Badge of Courage”. I picked them up gratefully.

My last purchase from Premier Bookshop, circa 2007

During my trip in 2007, I went over one morning to Residency Road to pay a visit to Sri Devi and Sridhar. Sri Devi had closed (or moved) and Sridhar was a mere shadow of its former illustrious self. I was the only customer in the store. I was looking for copies of my school textbooks. Textbooks that I had last used twenty-plus years ago. The owner told me with a heavy heart that he no longer sold textbooks. Schools had started selling textbooks on the school premises and they now required students to purchase the books from the school itself. He said he had been caught unawares when the schools had instituted this rule and he had requested a couple of schools in the area to purchase his inventory but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He must have incurred a substantial loss. I always remembered a clamor around the store with students jostling for textbooks and stationery supplies. It was deserted now.

My trips to India now usually find me frequenting book stores, looking for copies of books that are not easily available in the US. I no longer buy clothes, handicrafts, or home decor as I did on my early trips. Premier Bookshop closed down in 2009 and my favorite now is Blossoms, again on Church Street, just down the road from where Premier was situated. My cousin Bakin always has a few carefully selected books for me and on my trip in 2017, he took me to Flora Fountain where he picked up a copy of “Ten Years with Guru Dutt, Abrar Alvi’s Journey” from a pavement stall for me. I had not paid a visit to the footpath sellers of Kings Circle for about three decades, this came close to the experience though, I had my fix!

An iconic photograph of Mr. Shanbhag and Pemier Bookshop (Photo source: raghavshreyas.com)

Mr. Shanbhag probably became a celebrity of sorts with the publication of “Patriots and Partisans” by the well-known historian and author, Ramachandra Guha in 2012. He has dedicated a chapter titled “Turning Crimson at Premier” to Mr. Shanbhag. A documentary called “Mr. Shanbhag’s Shop” also paid tribute to Mr. Shanbhag. I read “Patriots and Partisans” in 2015 or so, and as I read the chapter on Mr. Shanbhag, I realized how little I knew the man. I had visited the shop several times but had never stopped to converse with him. Our conversations always revolved around the books that I was looking to buy. Ramachandra Guha also wrote an excellent obituary the day after Mr. Shanbhag passed on. He wrote about Mr. Shanbhag’s extensive knowledge of books, his eclectic collection, and indeed his generosity when it came to giving discounts on books or in some cases giving away the books gratis when he felt the customer could not afford the books. My brother and I can relate somewhat to that.

I’ve written about our experience with Mr. Shanbhag in my post on James Herriot but it bears repeating here. Sometime in 1986 or so, my team won a quiz competition and each of us received gift coupons to be redeemed at the Premier Book Shop.  My brother and I went to Premier on a Saturday evening and after browsing through several books,  we settled on the Bantam editions of “All Creatures Great And Small” and “All Things Bright And Beautiful”.  We were a few Rupees short and after emptying our pockets, we realized to our dismay that we were short by about Rs 10.  Mr. Shanbhag understood our predicament and generously packed the books for us, waiving off the balance.

I can easily understand the outpouring of affection and tributes to Mr. Shanbhag. Many of the bookstores I visited over the years were usually manned by a staff of employees, I never knew the owner of the store. Most of my purchases are now on Amazon or other online bookstores, faceless entities. Premier was a throwback to another age of the independent bookstore helmed by an owner who knew his books and more importantly, his customer. Today, algorithms study my browsing history and purchasing habits and recommend books to me. Mr. Shanbhag could have beaten them hands down and he had a smile to go with it. It is indeed the passing of an era.

The featured picture for this blog is of a footpath bookseller called Afzal in King’s Circle, Bombay. Photo courtesy of my cousin, Dr. Balkrishna (Bakin) Nayak

Mr. Shanbhag’s Shop

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