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Tuesday, 7 August 2012


Interior of Bookworm

I first visited Bangalore (in the south of India) early in 1994 in order to get married. Our marriage ceremony was held at my in-laws' home in Koramangala, a suburb about 8 Km south of the city centre. After the celebrations were over, we used to make occasional trips into town, often visiting the area around Mahatma Gandhi ('MG') Road. It was during these excursions that I first discovered the delights of Indian bookshops.

The attractions of these shops were two-fold. Firstly, they offered a greater variety of books (in English) than comparably sized bookshops in the UK. Secondly, books in India were, and still are, cheaper than in the UK. There are at least two reasons for this. One reason is that the prices of books published in India and Indian editions of books, which were originally published elsewhere, are lower than similar books in the UK. Another reason is the existence of what appears to be a literary rate of exchange for imported books. If, for example, the UK Pound is worth 80 Indian Rupees at the bank, it is valued , say for the sake of illustration, at 50 Rupees by Indian book distributors. So, the same book that sells for 20 Pounds in the UK will be sold for 1000 Rupees in India, thus reducing its cost to about 12 Pounds Sterling. This special 'literary' rate of exchange exists, I believe, to make imported titles more affordable to the vast number English readers in India.

The better known bookshops in Bangalore include: Higginbothams and Gangarams in MG ROad; Sapna in various locations around the city; Crossword in Residency Road; and various branches of chain stores in the some of the American-style shopping malls that are springing up in the city like fungi after a rainstorm. These stores, which are mostly well-stocked (especially Gangarams), are of less interest to me than the more individualistic establishments, which I am about to describe. 

A year or two after my first visit to Bangalore, a branch of the well-known Bombay bookshop, Strand Bookstall, was opened in the Manipal Centre, which stands at the eastern end of the military parade grounds that line the north side of MG Road. It is run by the daughter of the founder of the bookshop in Bombay, and offers a wide selection of new (as opposed to used) books at often ridiculously low prices. There are piles of books on the floor and on the shelves lining the walls of the low-ceilinged bookshop.  It is always worth visiting Strand, but you may not always find what you are looking for, but that could be said for any bookshop! Once a year, the shop closes for a few days in order to host an enormous sale in one of the city's larger exhibition halls.

Premier seen from its entrance

Premier, one of the most fantastic bookshops that has ever existed is no more. It closed one or two years ago when its owner, Mr Shanbag, retired. I felt almost as if I had suffered a bereavement when I arrived where the shop used to be located on the short stretch of Museum Road between MG Road and Church Street, and found that it was there no longer. Today, the shop and its neighbours have been rebuilt, and are no longer recognisable. 

From the outside, Premier could have been mistaken for being a newsagent. A rack of magazines stood next to, and  halfway through, the shop's entrance. As soon as you stepped through the doorway, you felt as if you had entered a book lover's Aladdin's  Cave.  Mr Shanbag, who is related to the founder of Strand Bookstall in Bombay, used to sit to the left of the entrance, his back to the shop's window and hidden behind the piles of books cluttering up his tiny desk. The long rectangular shop's side walls were lined with books stacked one upon each other. A central divider was similarly covered in books. Two narrow corridors ran along the length of the shop allowing customers and staff to penetrate the dingy depths of the establishment. Deep inside the shop there was a narrow, book-lined passage way connecting the two main corridors. This was so narrow that most adults, and obese children, needed to progress along this claustrophobic alley sideways. 

In most bookshops, customers are able to pick a book from a shelf, browse it, and then replace it if it sis not wanted. This was not the case at Premier.  Only the foolhardy, or a newcomer to the shop would attempt to take a book from Premier's bookshelves. I believe that the 19th century French composer Alkan was killed when he was crushed by books collapsing on him in his library. A similar fate awaited those who attempted to casually withdraw a book from Premier's shelves. The books were stacked upon each other in this shop extremely precariously. One careless move was all that was needed to initiate an avalanche of books on the unwary customer. This often happened. Mr Shanbag would  raise an eyebrow, and then he or one of his assistants would proceed to restore 'order' in the shelves

So, you may be excused for asking, how did customers ever manage to browse in Premier? It was simple. All that was necessary was to ask Mr Shanbag or one of his helpers to retrieve the book for you. If, as was often the case, you were unable to see the book that you desired in the overwhelming morass of volumes stacked in the shop, Mr Shanbag would be able to tell you instantly whether or not he had it in stock without resorting to a computer or any form of catalogue. He knew exactly what  he had in his shop, and more remarkably where a book was located if he had it in the shop. And when you had made your selection, he would prepare a bill, and then knocked 20% off the final total, especially if you were prepared to pay in cash.

The most remarkable thing about Mr Shanbag was his great understanding of his many regular customers' reading habits. He seemed to be able to remember what each customer had bought previously, even irregular customers like myself, who only visited his shop twice a year. He used his remarkable fund of knowledge to guide his regular customers in making their next purchases. Somehow, his brain kept a pattern of each of his customers' purchasing habits, and thus created their own personal reading 'profiles'. His suggestions for purchases, based on his understanding of his customers, were rarely far off the mark. Alas, this charming genius of a bookseller has retired, leaving a great gap in Bangalore's cultural landscape. 


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