How this Mumbaikar left drought-stricken Kutch at 14 to come to Mumbai and start a bookshop

02 December,2023 05:37 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Nascimento Pinto

Situated along the Irla Bridge, Kamal Book Shop was started by Ramji Patel, who came to the city from Gujarat in search for a job. Today, he has been catering to readers for the last 38 years and loves every moment of it

Ramji Patel (centre) started Kamal Book Shop 38 years ago at Irla bridge towards Andheri. Over the years, his sons Ramesh (left) and Jigar (right) have joined the business. Photo Courtesy: Nascimento Pinto

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Ramji Patel has only done his education till the second grade but his business acumen is that of an MBA graduate. "It is all hard work," says the Mumbai-based bookshop owner, very matter-of-factly. It is this very demeanour that makes all of it shine through the 67-year-old at Kamal Book Shop, which is just off the Irla bridge towards Andheri. Ramji has a steady stream of visitors who are a mix of customers, and friends that he has made over the years. While one solely comes to read Gujarati Mid-day at his shop, the other is an octogenarian who comes to chit chat with him. Through all of this, it is as if he is the conductor in an orchestra as he sways his imaginary baton to direct his sons and helpers with specific instructions. His baton though we think is more of a wand that is used to produce any kind of appliance that a customer wants as long as they wish for it.

It is because the bookshop which also functions as a paper mart is more like The Room of Requirement from Harry Potter. While it looks like a paper mart and bookshop from the outside, the further you go inside, you will find things that you wanted but never got down to buying. While talking to him, there are people who not only call for IIT books, books for professional courses, but also geysers, water filters and more.

Getting to business
Apart from different kinds of second-hand goods, the shop has paperbacks and hardbacks. With over 15,000 books, the shop is towering with titles of different kinds - some popular and others really unique. The collection is a result of the keen eye of Ramji and his two sons - Ramesh and Jigar, who help him run the shop, a stark difference from when he entered the business 35 years ago as he set it up in 1985. He shares, "I used to work in a kirana shop first and my cousin brother used to work in a book shop. He wanted to start a business, so he said ‘let's start a kirana shop', but we didn't have the money. So, my cousin brother said let's start a shop dealing in scrap because that wouldn't cost too much money. I started with him in Janta Paper Mart, the shop next door. However, we eventually got our own shops, and I continued in the books business because I saw that there used to be a lot of demand for the books that used to come from people."At the time, Ramji was in Jarimari in Kurla and his cousin brother in Vile Parle, and that's how he moved to the quiet suburb.

While they started the business together in 1975, he started out on his own 10 years later. He shares, "I moved to Mumbai 53 years ago because at that time there was drought in Kutch, and there was barely any water. So, my family members said go to Mumbai and try to earn a living. I did a few odd jobs for five years, and then we started the business." First, he started by making paper bags but soon started collecting the books and selling them.

Ramji is sharp and it is evident because ever since he took over the business, he has built it book by book. He may not know the names of books or the authors but what he brings to the table is his knack to listen to people that he sees walking in from the road. The art of listening is often underrated while handling a business, and that is where he learned what the customer wants or has been at their service always. It is also why he notes that over the years, he has seen many changes. "Earlier people used to read a lot of magazines and comic books. However, today that has reduced because he has seen a lot of children spend their time on their phones all the time and there is not much interest in reading. There are children who read today but not as much as it used to be before." Today, people can take the books for as cheap as Rs 100, and that goes up to Rs 500, but they also exchange books and give them at cheaper prices. "Apart from children, we also get older people who come in to buy and read Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata and other religious books too," he adds.

While they are selling books as of now, the Patels believe the building they are in will go under redevelopment soon. However, till then, they will keep the shop open. "While I will look to do something else when the shop moves, we will continue to keep the books as that is the line that we have been in for so many years," shares the Mumbaikar.

Taking the legacy forward
What Ramji says he lacks in knowledge of books is fulfilled by his sons Ramesh and Jigar, who help him in daily operations of the business. While the former has himself studied only till the eighth grade, joining the family business was organic. He explains, "Even while I was studying, I used to spend a lot of time at the shop with my father and the business. So, I joined and started helping him. However, I worked at several other places in the middle to see what else I could do and that is how I also spent the Covid-19 pandemic."

The 45-year-old has only recently come back and joined the shop again because it is familiar territory. In him, this writer saw the workings of Ramji, that is because of the way he does business and handles bargaining from customers who haggle for machines of different kinds, and even books. "At one point in time, people used to come all the way from Vasai, Virar, Vapi and other places in Gujarat to buy books from us," he adds.

The books may look a little disorganised but Ramesh shows us order in the chaos. The books are broadly divided into different sections - one side is a small section for children, and above that is religious books, on the other is books on finance, but there are others with popular titles, and even rare finds. All of the books range from Enid Blyton, Sudha Murty and the Geronimo Stilton series to others like self-help books and even prophecies by Nostradamus, among others.

With Jignesh entering the fold, Ramesh is humble enough to say his younger brother knows a lot more. Jignesh explains, "We have books in English, Hindi, Marathi and even Gujarati but the English books are the most popular followed by Hindi books." The youngest Patel is quick with not only regular books but also books needed by students who not only frequently call but also visit the shop. "Even though you can see that the books are many, we know exactly where they are. It may obviously take a few minutes to go through them but we will get them for you. In case, we aren't able to find it, then we tell the reader to come a little later. But we always find the book," assures Jigar. While the father doesn't go around looking or picking up books anymore because of his age, the sons have taken over and frequently meet their patrons who give them books for resale. They, along with their helper, come together like an orchestra to help people get lost in their shop as they sift through the books and their pages - which have many stories to tell.

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