Whenever I walk down the lane just off MG Road wherePremier Bookshop once stood, my face turns into a sentimental emoticon. Sitting behind a cluttered counter, TS Shanbhag used to be quick to recognise his regulars and gave discounts without any haggling: 10 per cent for new habitués and, if one came frequently, it could go up to 20 per cent.
With a certain flourish, Shanbhag whipped out the latest arrivals that might be of interest from the unruly stacks that were packed at least three rows deep. More than a shopkeeper, one could claim that he was a curator of literature. But ultimately he had to shut down in 2009 because the rent was becoming impossibly high. Besides, he turned 70 and felt like retiring after running the place almost single-handedly since 1971. (There’s a cinematic homage at www.mrshanbagshop.org, dedicated to this iconic bookstore.)
The horror story At around the same time, when everybody started ordering books online, it looked like Bengaluru’s central business district was going illiterate. The big chains — Crossword, Landmark, Odyssey and Reliance — were rapidly downscaling. The Penguin-owned Pageturners, which was set up with much bravado on MG Road, didn’t last long. The classic Raj-era Higginbothams next door, once branded as “official booksellers to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales”, was boarded up for renovation for such a disconcertingly long time that it too seemed lost, but finally made a comeback in an upgraded avatar a month ago (retaining its classic façade). It’s really been worse for the independents: The venerable Gangarams, founded in 1965 and once the biggest bookstore in MG Road, shifted to a smaller space on adjacent Church Street in 2013, while Strand Book Stall (that specialised in art books and organised its own book fairs), Fountainhead (which pioneered the trend of bookstore launches with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things back in the 1990s), and the smart Sankar’s Book Stall, all vanished without a trace. Finally, just a couple of years ago the Variety Book House & Magazines Shop shut down both its showrooms. Increasingly, people were buying online, which lead to a slump in sales.
We’re talking virtual bookstore annihilation here! While a lone pirate still pushes his cart along MG Road, the uncle in the gully who spread out an array of non-pirated books on a ledge vanished, too, and for years the only bookshop standing on MG Road was the 30-year-old Book Bazaar — which isn’t a shop, strictly speaking, but a hole-in-the-wall behind a fast-food stall. It is run by an old gentleman and if you strike up a conversation with him, he’ll bring out boxes of pulp fiction for you to inspect.
And then of course, tucked away in the quiet Brigade Road Cross (off-Brigade Road which is off-MG Road), there’s the indestructible Select, founded in 1945 by the passionate book collector KBK Rao. Select remains an impossibly crammed and almost secret bookshop. It was originally run from a garage in fancy Museum Road and as the years went by, and the collection expanded with the inclusion of libraries left behind by departing ex-colonialists, it claimed itself a space among the fancier MG Road bookshops. Then MG Road got too expensive and finally Select shifted to its current location. Luminaries who have frequented it include the Nobel Prize winner CV Raman, author Ruskin Bond, artist Yusuf Arakkal, and historian Ramachandra Guha who, in his essay collection The Last Liberal , declares it to be his ‘favourite of all India’s second-hand bookshops’.
K Sanjay Rao, grandson of KBK Rao, tells me that if a book isn’t easily accessible he’ll track down a copy. Today he offers me two out-of-print books on Bengaluru’s history that I’d been hunting for. One is still plastic-wrapped and unused; the other is in fine condition despite being 45 years old — he recently found it on the bookshelf of a person in one of the older parts of town. I, of course, recognise the title and know that I can get it online for ₹5,000, which is way above my budget, so I cautiously ask how much he wants for both.
Sanjay thinks for a moment and suggests, “Let’s say ₹1,650.” I agree immediately, but have to ask him why he doesn’t demand more. “It wouldn’t be correct, because now the books have found the right owner.”
The fairy tale There’s suddenly new hope for the book trade. Last year, I heard of several new shops opening up on Church Street which is parallel to MG Road. Naturally, I thought I was hallucinating, but the next time I went into town I found the rumour to be true — that Church Street is reinventing itself as a tourist destination for bibliomaniacs.
One trendsetter is Krishna Gowda. Gowda’s has been a remarkable journey. As a youth, he started peddling books on the MG Road pavement two decades ago. Last year, he consolidated his several Bookworm stores into two outlets: One being the original cosy nook started in 2002 in Shrungar Complex (off-MG Road), and the other a vast 5,000-sq ft showroom at 1, Church Street. To stock his shops, Gowda travels hundreds of kilometres to acquire collections that people want to sell.
Popular features at his newest shop include a separate floor for kids, an air-conditioned auditorium for literary events and a huge second-hand selection, on top of which Gowda also sells the latest titles at an attractive 20 per cent markdown — which results in spectacular sales. One day when I drop in, I find that I just missed the launch of Ashwin Sanghi’s latest, but I do spot bestselling novelist Anita Nair browsing. Gowda usually greets every writer he recognises with, “We’ve sold a thousand copies of your book, please sign another 15 today.”
Another store specialising in an eclectic mix of new and old is Blossom Book House, merely a few steps away from Bookworm. I was first introduced to it by a fellow bibliophile in 2002 when it had just been opened by engineering school dropout Mayi Gowda in a minuscule 200-sq ft cubicle. True to its name, it soon blossomed to become one of the biggest second-hand bookshops in India, a feat which earned it listings in tourist guides such as Lonely Planet and Frommer’s .
The newer Blossoms (2, Church Street) is a veritable supermarket of literature which includes a big collection of graphic novels as well as stationery, plus clean loos and free mineral water, so one can technically go on browsing forever. Its other branch (84/6 Church Street) lies virtually across the road and has three storeys.
This Bengaluru institution has even inspired a fan page that collects quirky book conversations; it’s called Overheard at Blossoms (http://overheardatblossoms.tumblr.com). Sample this:
Guy 1: Why are you going there da? That’s romance section.
Guy 2: Yeah I know dude. I just want to see if they have one book.
Guy 1: Full romance books you’re reading? Are you Romeo or Devdas?
Guy 2: No dude, I saw one chick in my bus reading some Nora Roberts book. I thought I can say I also read it if I get the chance to talk to her.
Guy 1: Dude you’re my guru from now da!
Just before the next street corner, there’s The Entertainment Store (47, Church Street), which deals in comic books apart from a variety of filmy merchandise. Not far from it I finally come to one of the street’s coolest shops, Goobe’s Book Republic (11, Church Street) run by the visionary Ravi Menezes. Goobe’s is smaller than Bookworm and Blossoms, but the hip factor is higher due to the laidback atmosphere, groovy music performances, and a carefully put together selection of pop culture non-fiction and cult fiction. The slightly hippie-minded Menezes is also into alternative lifestyles, social responsibility, composting garbage, slum libraries, rural literacy, supplying books to hospital patients — and is planning to start an online community library. Plus if you can’t afford to buy the books, you can rent them instead, which, all in all, makes Goobe’s into one of the most phenomenal bookshops since Premier shut down in 2009. It is a worthy heir as it is located just around the corner from where Premier once stood.
The long haul All the proprietors I chatted with suggest in their various ways that they’re not into it for huge profits, but would be satisfied if they can foresee a day when they break even. A love for books as objects and a deep engagement with the trade is at the heart of the matter.
Obviously, money is going around because both Bookworm and Blossoms doubled their floor spaces during 2016. But unlike the corporate chain-bookstores of the previous decade that expect almost immediate profitability these shopkeepers are in it for the long haul. Mostly, having started their businesses as tiny stalls, they expanded step by step as their fan base broadened; a customer-centric approach which brought them stability and success.
Furthermore, as books aren’t perishable (like food) and never go out of fashion (unlike clothes) stocks will only continue to appreciate, even if sales grow slowly. While I sort through the day’s booty, I know very well that next month, I’m going to do this same tour all over again — because even if Church Street has no church, it certainly is the place for book worship. Here, real-life browsing still rules over internet browsing.
Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist