| Firemen battle the blaze from the pavement opposite Dasgupta & Co, on College Street. (Below) Charred books lie in a heap within. Pictures by Amit Datta
An hour is all that it took to reduce 118 years of history to a pile of debris, dark and damp.
Dasgupta & Co, College Street’s best-known bookshop, was gutted in a blaze on Sunday afternoon.
Fire-fighters battled the blaze in the three-storeyed shop close to Coffee House for just under an hour and prevented it from spreading to the adjoining bookshops.
But the damage at Dasgupta & Co was done. Most of the ground floor, the entire first floor and a portion of the second floor were destroyed by the flames.
“About 90 per cent of our books have been burnt,” said Ranjan Dasgupta, one of the owners of the shop.
At around 4 pm, Khokon Dey, a pavement bookstall-owner, noticed smoke billowing out of a second-floor window of Dasgupta & Co, diagonally opposite Presidency College.
Dey sounded the alarm and 10 fire engines trundled in from the Central Avenue fire station.
Since the shop had been closed for the past two days on account of the strike called by The Publishers and Booksellers Association of Bengal, the doors were all locked, forcing the fire-fighters to break in.
The single wooden staircase — accessible from behind the main counter — had already collapsed by then, and the firemen had to use a ladder, placed over the stalls on the right side of the pavement, to make their way in.
As the fire-fighters battled the blaze, 10 more fire engines reached the spot, drawing water from the College Square pool. With 150 fire-fighters in the fray, the fire was finally brought under control.
“The fire started on the ground floor of the shop, from the main switch,” said a fire brigade official. “The racks of books were burnt, destroying most of the ground floor collection. Then the fire spread, along the staircase and false ceiling, to the 100-sq-ft first floor that was full of books,” he added.
The fire, “which must have started long before it was detected at 4 pm”, also razed a portion of the third floor.
“If the fire had spread to the adjacent shops, an entire flank of College Street, up to Bankim Chatterjee Street, could have been destroyed,” said Baren Sen, director of West Bengal Fire Services.
Booksellers since 1886, the shop had recorded a Rs 1.5 crore turnover on an average and supplied books on higher education to over 450 institutions in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, beside retailing all varieties of books used in schools, colleges and universities across the country.
Recently, the shop-owners had got in touch with some American and British book companies to go online, because of a space jam at the College Street address.
Fire services director Sen, meanwhile, clarified that the cause of the fire had not been ascertained and that he would order a forensic investigation.
“The bookshop had been closed because of the strike, and I am sure all the electrical appliances inside had been switched off,” said Dasgupta.