Surviving and Thriving
With Manneys, Pune's iconic bookshop closing down, a look at Mumbai's independent bookstores which continue to woo bibliophiles inspite of the digital boom
On March 31, Pune’s iconic 63-year-old bookshop Manneys shut its shutters for the last time, much to the disappointment of the city’s booklovers. Mumbai has no dearth of such antique bookshops, mostly located in the island city, and also has its own 63-year-old bookshop for bibliophiles -- the Strand Book Stall. Giving Strand company are several other ancient book hubs such as Mahim’s Victoria Book Centre, Mani Bhavan’s Gandhi Book Centre, the Nalanda at Taj, Shankar’s at Colaba and Flora Fountain’s pavement stalls. The rapid growth and commercialization of the relatively new bookstores such as Crossword and Landmark, and the birth of Flipkart.com and other online retailers has already packed off some of the older bookshops in the city, such as The New and Second Hand Bookshop, opposite Metro cinema, and Lotus House Books in Bandra. Would the city’s other ancient bookshops follow suit? “It is a reflection of our times,” says R Venkatesh, a 49-year-old banker and avid reader. “Today, I don’t see any conversation at bookshops. All you get to see are best-seller lists. Bookshops used to be a place where you could go spend hours and hours buried in a world of books with other like-minded readers. Unfortunately, that culture has vanished today.”
Sudha Hariharan (56), a freelance writer agrees with Venkatesh and puts it down to changing reading habits. “I myself don’t read as much as I used to before,” she laments, adding, “Today, very few people go to libraries. Once upon a time, the Asiatic Library and the British Council Library used to have huge waiting lists. You won’t get to see that today. It’s pretty sad!” Venkatesh and Hariharan come from a generation that has grown up reading from the Strand bookstore at Fort and hope it does not do a Manneys in the near future. Hariharan, however, says that it will be difficult to displace all the old bookshops and stalls. “Some books which are available at the pavement sellers at Fort are priceless!” she says. “The Crosswords and the Landmarks are definitely classy. But unless you’re a booklover yourself, you won’t know what to store in your shop. The owner of Strand was an avid booklover himself, which is why the store is so successful.”
The story of the Strand Book Stall is a fascinating one. It started as a small two-shelved kiosk at the now-defunct Strand Cinema in South Mumbai’s Apollo Bundar area. The man behind it all was TN Shanbhag, who was the first bookseller in the country to be given the distinction of Padmashree. Shanbhag passed away, at the age of 85, three years ago, but not before passing on the legacy to his two children — Arun Shanbhag and Vidya Virkar. “My father was a post-Independence child who was fired by a passion of building a nation,” says Virkar. "He was an voracious reader as a youngster and used to buy one Penguin (a publisher) a month, which was what he could afford. Once, a salesperson at a bookstore turned him out for browsing, which really humiliated him. This is when he decided to open a bookstall of his own where nobody would be turned away for browsing.”
In 1948, with just Rs 450 in hand, the 23-year-old Shanbhag-who had studied Economics and History at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai-approached KK Modi, the owner of Strand Cinema with the idea of opening a small bookstall at the premises. Modi loved the idea and funded for two shelves himself, and the Strand Book Stall came into being. The cinema, at the time, was the only one in Mumbai, which showed English films and was frequented by the crème de la crème of the city. “My father interacted with a lot of people, made a lot of friends, learnt their likes and dislikes in books and made sure that his customers always got what they desired, for 20 per cent less!” remarks Virkar. TN Shanbhag ran the small kiosk successfully for two decades. However, in 1952, Shanbhag felt he needed to buy a bigger place to sell books due to the increasing popularity and demand. Thus, the Strand Book Stall on Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road in South Mumbai’s Fort area was born. “Over the years, dad managed to educate three generations of India’s people,” says Virkar. “There are countless stories of children who grew up reading from Strand. Dad was very generous towards children. He often allowed them to take books home on approval, without asking for a single rupee,” she added.
Explaining Strand’s inimitable modus operandi of offering discounts upon discounts, Arun Shanbhag says, “We are not a charity, nor are we a pure business organization; we are a social organization. If we start making this a commercial enterprise, the whole brand would lose its charm. That is why Strand shines above the rest, because of the commitment to the reader.” But sustaining such a large enterprise with such generous discounts must hardly be coming with any profits. Manager PM Shenvi explains, “We don’t bother how much we earn. We sell all the latst books at special prices that’s our standard policy. We have to survive. But whatever we give (sell), we give genuinely. We don’t play any gimmicks.” However surprising this customer-oriented model is, it seems to be working. And Strand isn’t the only bookshop following it. “We learn a lot from our customers,” agrees Bharat Amin, General Secretary, Mumbai Noble Booksellers Welfare Association, and proprietor of the pavement bookstall at Flora Fountain (now Hutatma Chowk). “It is by learning their demands, their likes and dislikes, that we understand how our business works,” he adds.
Calling TN Shanbhag his idol, Amin elaborates on the formula being followed by his stall started 55 years ago by his father, Narayan Amin, “To run such a business, you need a phenomenal knowledge of books. You must also know the taste and budget of the customer. If you try to sell a book worth Rs 1000 to a person whose budget is only Rs 500, then you’re going nowhere. You have to know what the customer wants. It's an art which you need to possess or inculcate.” Amin believes that his bookstall, along with Strand and other old ones, is here to stay. “People know where to find the treasure,” he says. “Some of our titles are not available anywhere else in Mumbai. We have about 60-70 people roaming around the city visiting raddi shops, libraries, etc. in the search of titles. People know that they will find something different here.”
Online retailers such as Flipkart.com, who offer luxuries such as free door-to-door delivery, are fast growing in popularity. But as far as Mumbai’s old hubs are concerned, their proprietors refuse to press the panic button and insist they will survive the rise of the machines, so to say. Amin adds, “We also have a library system where customers can borrow books at nominal rates for as long as they want. Can you expect similar deals at the biggies?” Shenvi too has a lot of faith in his loyal customer base and says, “We have thousands of well-wishers who will always stand up for us in times of need.” Branding the online retailers as “short-sighted”, Shenvi adds, “They store in bulk, which is why they can offer whatever discounts they are offering. They can afford to lose crores, but we can’t.” Delivering the knock-out punch, he says, “Still, we have better prices than all online stores.” Amin agrees, “The newer, commercial bookshops and online retailers are only interested in brand building. They are battling each other, not us.” Amin Shroff, proprietor of the 77-year-old Sterling Book House at Fort, however has a different viewpoint. “Online portals with their door-to-door delivery system are definitely affecting the buying patterns of customers,” he says. “Each bookshop has its own limitations. Unless we come up with new ideas such as getting more products, changing stocking patterns and changing the window dressing we are not going to survive in today’s world,” he adds. Refuting the argument that old bookshops will always have the monopoly over rare and dated books, Shroff says, “Google and Amazon have begun digitizing old books. It’s only a matter of time before rare books are available online.”
“It is an evolutionary process,” explains Shroff. You can't stop it; you just have to live with it and adapt with the times. Those who don’t adapt will have to suffer later.” Venkatesh reluctantly agrees, “Eventually, Strand might have to evolve into a Crossword or Flipkart. They will have to lose their character to keep up with the times.” Prasad Kamath, 35, an IT security consultant and bibliophile, is more pragmatic. “I guess it all depends on what kind of a person you are,” he says. “For me, the touch and feel of the book, the smell of the pages and browsing through the book before buying is very important. An online store cannot provide me that facility.” He adds, “Stores such as Strand are like a candy shop for a kid, where you can just go berserk. That feeling is irreplaceable.”
The New Delhi World Book Fair, held in Pragati Maidan in New Delhi, is India’s oldest book fair. Started in 1972, this biennial event takes place in early February. India is the third biggest market for English publications. The country is believed to have 12,000 publishers that publish around 90,000 titles a year in more than 18 languages.