It was the year 2000. This journalist had stepped into Strand Book Stall, off Sir PM Road, in search of reference material for a project. The iconic bookstore was overflowing with book piles that touched the ceiling; TN Shanbhag, its genial founder-owner, could be heard speaking with a middle-aged patron. “Madam, if Shakespeare’s finest is what you’re looking for, you’re in the right place. We have the box set, illustrated copies on our mezzanine floor, and hardbound single titles that will make for classics on your bookshelf,” he advised. Visibly pleased with the personal touch, the customer opted for the box set, and thanked Shanbhag profusely.
He continued to mingle with fellow book lovers. Soon, he moved to the billing counter to help ease the rush on a busy Saturday afternoon. A first-timer would have no idea of his background. Such was his humility and passion.
Much has changed since November 20, 1948, when Shanbhag sold his first book from a kiosk inside Colaba’s long-gone Strand Cinema (hence the name). Wooing a young nation into the reading habit must have been a challenge. Shanbhag didn’t give up. By the time he moved into the permanent space inside the Fort business district in the early 1950s, Strand slowly but surely began to carve a niche as a reader’s paradise. From JRD Tata and Jayaprakash Narayan, to Nani Palkhivala, Homi J Bhabha, GD Birla, Dr Vikram Sarabhai and Dr Abdul Kalam, the ‘little-big’ bookstore caught the imagination of India’s finest minds, and of course, the common man too. We must add here that RK Laxman was a regular patron.
Conferred with the Padma Shri in 2003, Shanbhag remained as iconic as the bookstore, and possibly the only bookseller to have been conferred with such an honour by the Government of India. When he passed away in 2009, it was a loss not just for his family, and his staff — many continue to work at the bookstore till date — but for Mumbai’s reading community, and countless out-of-towners who would visit the store as part of their itinerary. Even now, the Strand Book Sale is an annual must-attend pilgrimage of sorts, where sights of overenthusiastic readers buying books by the kilo make for rare frames in this Digital Age.
Now overseen by his daughter Vidya Virkar, the bookstore continues to be quintessentially Mumbai — the organized chaos of its shelves, its space-crunched interiors and an old-world charm that jostles for elbow room amidst a fast-changing landscape. Above all, it is a survivor. Just like the spirited, book-loving Mumbaikar.
The writer is Features Editor of mid-day
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