Vanishing treasure trove

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It once held the promise of treasured volumes that came at a steal... but the current state of Kolkata's College Street book market makes for sad reading.

Kasturi Basu

I still cannot but wonder at my copy of A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. It is a smart leather-bound volume with gilt edges and a small gold-and-leather strap for a page mark. Bought at one of the second-hand bookstalls on College Street, I still remember my disbelief when the shopkeeper had asked for Rs 50. "Rs 25", I had said just for fun and he handed me the book for the sum. That was about a decade ago. The shopkeeper, Shaha da soon became an invaluable companion during my student days with his suggestions on the best books on a subject and supplying me with some of the best buys in my collection for less than Rs 100.

Prabhat Shaha's pavement stall with its treasure of some of the rarest books, was located somewhere between Calcutta University and the first gate of Presidency College.

After being away from the city for a few years, I visited the bookstore on my return only to find that Shaha da now sold old question papers, the graduation syllabi and `notes' for students of Calcutta University. Two medium-sized tables occupying a fourth of the area the previous shop occupied, was more than enough for his present `collection'. This was devastating. Most of the volumes that I had picked up from his shop had long been out of print; the city's best bookstores could never match his collection or his prices.

Not that he was happy with the change himself. He had immense pride in the shop's collection, which was inherited from his grandfather and father. There was dejection in his voice when he recounted how the fast-dwindling buyers over the years had forced him to change the nature of his `collection'.

And this is not the fate of Shaha da alone.

The College Street book market, once a repository of rare books of all times and a favourite haunt of Kolkata-based novelists, travel writers and historians, is on the verge of extinction, thanks to the deteriorating reading habits of this so-called intellectual city.

With books spread on tables, makeshift stalls and even on the pavement, requiring the pedestrian to sidestep with gymnastic agility, it still looks the way it did about 50 years ago, except that it has diminished in size. A closer look at the books and the telltale signs of change are everywhere.

From over a hundred second-hand bookstalls at one time, there are hardly 30 holding fort now. And the shops, which once exclusively stocked books of specific genres, now offer a mixed platter. "Look at my shop," says 80-year-old Indra Das. "Even 20 years ago, I never kept books from the Calcutta University syllabus. Now 80 per cent of my stock is either syllabus books or even worse notes. My old customers cannot come because of age and there are no new ones coming. This is the condition of all the shops."

Stop to ask for any book not in the university syllabi and you are likely to be greeted with a snort from one of the older booksellers or a blank refusal from one of their junior counterparts. And yet, most of these shops had once stacked Sartre, Camus, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen in various editions.

In fact, nearly all the shops could boast of having supplied a rare volume to a collector. Besides the rare and out-of-print editions, there would be multiple copies of the same book in different editions.

Often, the buyer relied on the shopkeeper's suggestion when going in for a not-so-famous book. Thus, over a period of time, most stalls had cultivated their regular group of serious readers, in addition to the day-to-day student crowd. Thus developed an absolute camaraderie between a buyer and his favourite shopkeeper who became, if not a philosopher, definitely a friend and guide.

Shaha da reminisced about the time when he would actually call up customers to inform them of an interesting addition to his stock.

"The book market itself is to be blamed for its present state," says Swapan Chakraborty, a retired professor of philosophy and a regular at College Street for decades. "Definitely the number of serious readers has declined. The shop owners are no longer interested in getting those special books. Question papers, syllabus and notes they are much more profitable."

But Shaha da or Das da are not ready to buy this. Times have changed rapidly, they say. In the desperate attempt to shake off that slightly condescending stamp of a `traditional' city, Kolkata dwellers appear eager to do away with all past favourites, reading being one of them.

And thus Shaha da or Das da have sunk to the role of an efficient supplier of question papers. They are still left with a handful of collectors' items but have no takers. The rising prices of books, which has often been cited as the reason for the drop in sales, does not hold true here as many of the second-hand bookshops on College Street continue to sell at nearly the same price they did about a decade ago.

And then there is the looming threat to the market's very location, thanks to city beautification efforts that attempted to shift the book stalls to a multi-storied `book complex' in 2000. The move met with resistance from the sellers as well as the handful of regulars at these shops. The idea resurfaces from time to time, leaving the book market on the edge of uncertainty.

Then came the boi haat (book bazaar) where the stall-owners, frantic to get rid of old stocks, sold books by weight! Books could be got at Rs 10-20 per kg every Sunday morning from 10a.m. to 12 noon. This continued for some months before being called off because there were not enough takers!

And thus, under Big Brother's glares and an indifferent readership, the College Street book market inches towards an unceremonious death.

Picture by A. Roy Chowdhury

The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 23, 2005)
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