Books first

By Fifth Column -Shyam G. Menon
  • Published 26.03.09

T.N. Shanbhag, who died recently, leaves behind a legacy few in Mumbai can boast of. In this city of wealth, fame and fortune, he was the best-known provider of knowledge. He believed in it and gifted it to you for a discount both through the legendary book shop that he owned and the annual book fairs that he held.

Strand Book Stall is a small establishment tucked away in the city’s Fort area managed by a team remarkable for the interest they take in knowing their products. It is a talent, albeit a fading one, that characterizes the city’s older shops; you actually find people behind the counters who bother to study the music, books or films they sell. Nowadays, selling is brisk business at large in shopping malls, efficiently executed by an army of plug-in, plug-out youngsters. The shop is no more someone’s establishment. In contrast, you could walk into that small bookstore with books piled all around and get a guided tour through the latest arrivals from Shanbhag himself. Best of all, he seemed to remember names, faces, even interests.

At the book fair, that ambience was multiplied manifold. A weekend visit to the fair was like a slice of the city for it would be so crowded. You typically chose weekdays instead and as you approached the counter to pay the bill, there would be the man himself, never failing to say hello should he see you. At the store and the fair alike, books held the centre stage.

Few things in life can match the imagination that goes into the creation of a book. Books share this trait with music and films, which is why opening a book-shop or a music-store would easily feature among the deeply personal dreams people are forced to discard in today’s harsh economics. Today’s world is all about why money alone can triumph. I do not know how wealthy Shanbhag was, but for me the delight in meeting him was that he consistently made you feel that knowledge deserved to be beyond commercialism. In the 10 years I worked as a journalist in Mumbai, I must have interviewed him at length thrice. On the last occasion, we met at his office near the city’s Liberty cinema; it was as congested and small as his much-visited bookstore.

Books first

In fact, Strand seemed to revel in that lack of space, almost wearing it like an advertisement. Shanbhag would call his store “a hole in the wall”; he never seemed to notice what the little space available meant for customers. Books came first. That third interview was the most engaging one for me for it didn’t deal with the story of Strand. It dealt with how well this vintage bookstore could hold against the large bookshop experience — all pushing mega retailing of books, music CDs, DVDs, computer games and so on. A couple of them had coffee shops on their premises. It was all about which model was best suited to tap deep into the footfall registered at the shop. If the customer didn’t find the book of his choice, he bought a CD or drank cappuccino. These were the points of convergence of a new, liberalized India.

But Shanbhag seemed unshaken. He was also sure that since Strand’s core strength was books, he would be happier with customers who came for books than for a cup of coffee. I doubt the longevity of this faith in a world ruled by business models, but I admire that man for having devoted his life to the printed word and making it accessible to more and more people. Visit the Strand website and you will know what I mean. After a mention of its founding in 1948, the highlights are on its discounts. Strand was the first in the world to offer 20 per cent discount; it now offers up to 50 per cent. The world’s biggest book chain in comparison was late to offer discounts and still does no better than 20 per cent. For me, such an approach, plenty of books and a store owner like Shanbhag, are all that matters. The cappuccino can wait.