Will Mumbai's iconic Strand book stall stand the test of time?

With murmurs of unpaid staff dues, another SoBo institution is facing stormy weather. Owner Vidya Virkar admits business model needs a rethink if Strand Book Stall is to survive, but is optimistic of outliving competition

Last December, when Jai Hind College’s head of department for Mass Media, professor S Varalakshmi, walked into Fort’s Strand Book Stall, she was told its iconic sale was underway in a space next door. For decades, Mumbai’s booklovers had queued up outside Sunderbai Hall in Marine Lines where Strand’s fiercely popular annual sale would be held. “I was told the store could no longer afford the hall’s high rentals,” says Varalakshmi, “I picked up a few books to gift friends, and show my support.”

The Strand book stall. Pics/Bipin Kokate
The Strand book stall. Pics/Bipin Kokate

The professor is one among hundreds who share an emotional connect with the modest bookshop that Padma Shri late TN Shanbhag set up in November 1948 with a capital of Rs 450. Recent talk of financial stress has spurred anxiety within the community of book lovers.

Last month, a newspaper announced the store was shuttering. Loyal customers flocked to the ground-plus-mezzanine outpost in Bora Bazaar but were reassured that the news was inaccurate.

Close on the heels of this come murmurs about non-payment of dues to Strand's staff, some of them employees since the 1960s. Last week, a source close to the bookstore revealed that the store’s 13-member team had not received their salaries for the last few months. Several among them are senior citizens, who think it impossible to seek fresh job opportunities. They had little option, said the source, but to petition owner and Shanbhag's Bangalore-based daughter, Vidya Virkar to look urgently into the matter. Yesterday, we heard that part of the arrears were cleared, leaving the staff hopeful that creases would be ironed out.

The iconic Strand Book Stall has held its annual sale at Sunderbai Hall for decades, but can no longer afford the high rentals. Pic/Bipin Kokate
The iconic Strand Book Stall has held its annual sale at Sunderbai Hall for decades, but can no longer afford the high rentals

Virkar however, put it down to rumour-mongering. “It’s false [news]. The staff is insecure because things are in a state of flux. Strand is at a crossroads, and must either reinvent itself or cease to exist. As owner, I am looking at several options available before I take a call. In fact, big investors are keen to help us spread in other cities. But I need to weigh every aspect carefully to ensure sustainability,” she said.

Virkar added that it wasn't appropriate to have shared the same with the staff considering these are private management decisions.

While Virkar is determined to sound optimistic, those in the know from bookstore circles have a different story to tell. An industrywallah says, “No new titles are reaching its bookshelves. The same stock is being recycled. Payments haven’t been made to distributors, so fresh stock isn’t coming in. The staff has to pick up titles from sub-distributors. This automatically reduces discount margins that have always been Strand's USP.”

All Virkar says to this is a firm, “We aren’t shutting shop. Strand is up and running.”

Loyalists cannot but help remember Shanbhag’s goodwill that made the institution a success. Taking personal interest in picking titles, maintaining a rapport with distributors, sharing views with discerning readers and couriering books that weren’t available to customers when they visited, Shanbhag was the bookworm's personal advisor. “If a book wasn’t on sale, the efficient staff would source the requested book. I’d always receive it within a week,” advocate Narayan Kumar remembers. Distributors swore by Shanbhag’s acumen and involvement, and regulars like Shweta George, miss his presence. “The titles are still there, and the staff is ever-helpful. But his loss has left a huge vacuum.” A regular for 30 years, George stopped visiting the store after she realized that a grand bouquet of discounted titles was available to her online.

Virkar admits that the digital retail revolution has hit them hard. “The current template needs a revamp since modes of reading have changed. Rumours will fly. We will go on and do what we have to do systematically and calmly. Don’t forget, this is a legacy, not just a store.”

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