[All Photographs in this post are courtesy web edition of The Hindu]
One thing I miss most in Ahmedabad is a good bookshop. Coming from Bangalore where MG Road area has some great book stores for both used and new books in English, Sapna in Majestic and Ankita in Gandhibazaar having a good collection of Kannada books and even residential areas like Jayanagar having Nagasri and Prism, Ahmedabad is generally a let down. I remember, for the first time I came into to Gujarat as a student I was taking a walk on the Station Road in Anand and found a big signboard which just said "BOOKS" and I was greatly kicked. But as I went nearer I found that this store was only selling red coloured "chopdis" - the account books which the traders maintain so well that even the smartest of the income tax officials will be unable to make out the actual transactions recorded in them!!
Ahmedabad earlier had New Order Book Company, an antiquarian shop near Ellisbridge, but it was not in the same league as my friend KKS Murthy's Select. I found it to be too prim and proper (and a tad expensive) for one to browse around. Somehow part of the books were in enclosed cupboards and it was not browser-friendly. This tendency is not only limited to the book stores, but one gets followed all over the place even if one gets into a departmental store like Adanis. Now even this shop is closed. For new books we have Granthagar, Natraj (a teeny weeny shop, but if you have a title in mind, he will deliver it to you) and Kitab Mahal.. and the mother of all - Crossword. Crossword in Ahmedabad is qualitatively different from the Bangalore outlet and I believe has a better collection of toys, music, video, stationery than books! Even here you get followed around and for a while were not allowed to carry CDs with you, but now its is a bit better. But given that this is the only bookshop of a decent size and Crossword as a policy allows browsing, one finds that the place is generally buzzing with people, and the cash counters usually have a small queue on weekends. But still I would on any day spend more time in Premier in Bangalore than in Crossword Ahmedabad. In fact I always got the feeling that the Airport bookshop in Ahmedabad was better than Crossword, eventhough the collection was much smaller. With the new terminal, Sankars has opened an outlet and that appears much better than the rest.
Given this situation, it is but natural for me to head for a book shop whenever I am out of Ahmedabad, and in particular when I am in Bangalore. My affiliation with Select and Premier have been for ages - right from my college days. There was a phase when I would head to Brigades every saturday to have a good quantity of draught beer from Oaken Cask at their happy hour and then head to Select Book Shop to partly browse, partly chat till I thought that I was "safe" to get back home!! This has been one of the most rewarding experiences as I got to know the small nooks and corners of Select (not that there were many). While I used to hang around in all the bookshops - Higginbothams and LV, The Book Cellar (mysteriously tucked under the Plaza Theatre), Gangarams - of late my trips were more functional as there was little time during a visit to Bangalore. Therefore a good three or four hours were only sufficient for a walk around in Premier and a chat and a coffee with Murthy of Select. I remember that Gangarams used to be a great place, but that was before the superstructure that they were building near Kapali Theatre collapsed. After that it sort of lost its shine!! Higginbothams and LV were always so-so.
In restricting myself to Premier and Select I had not looked at the new outfits that has cropped up in the recent past - English Edition and Blossoms on Church Street, Crossword in Residency Road and BookWorm in Shringar complex and Brigade Road cross. But this time when I went to Premier, I found something amiss. A typical trip to Premier would be a reality check on how much weight I had put on and whether I could still move around the corridors, without tripping a few books. (Very much like the saying that you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, you could not find a great book in Premier without dropping a few piles). Suddenly it appeared that Premier had decided to accomodate my pot-belly by going on a diet itself!
I had once asked Shanbhag of Premier if he was related to Shanbhag of Strand and he'd told me that Strand Shanbhag was his uncle and he had trained under him. Well it then appeared to me that the training was not complete because Premier Shanbhag had possibly not learnt to stack books from his illustrious uncle. Now it appeared as if Premier Shanbhag had gone for a crash course on stacking!! Ten years ago Premier used to close for two days a year for "stock taking" - but I had once joked with Shanbhag that it was a fruitless exercise given the way his store is organised. I guess the joke became a reality as it became too difficult for him to do stock taking and he decided to give the annual holiday a go by.
I know that Ram Guha has been asking Shanbhag to organise a sale so that we could see the books that were hidden in the second and third layers behind what was obvious. Shanbhag would just smile. But suddenly it appeared that it was coming true.
This time when I visited, I was looking for Narendra Luther's book on Hyderabad and surprise-surprise Premier did not have it! I asked Shanbhag if he would get it for me from OUP for which he readily agreed, and a couple of days later he called me to say that the book had arrived and enquired if I would still be interested or should he send the book back. The later part of the conversation was strange because even if I did not buy the book, Shanbhag would normally have stocked it. I then came to know from friends that he is closing down the place. That really put the entire store in perspective and I knew why I felt that there was something amiss there. Shanbhag confirmed that he had to leave as the lease had come to an end and just smiled and said that he would retire....
Suddenly I realised that there would be a big void in my Bangalore trips. Shanbhag had to move on, and so did I. I wish he would be there forever because there is no greater pleasure than following the one way rule as Ram Guha put it in one of his write ups on Premier - moving from the left hand side to cover the entire circle and discover some really great books. For the first time in his shop I also found my own book on Microcredit, thanks to the diet, it possibly must have come out of the inside layers. With my general disappointment with the fact that Premier was winding down I decided to make a larger round of the other bookshops and managed to visit three outlets [but two shops].
Blossoms was really a discovery. It has a combination of used as well as new books and has a very good range. Somehow after being a Murthy regular for a long time, I would never look at a new used book shop under the assumption that they would not go beyond the Ludlums, Archers, Forsyths, Grishams and Sheldons. But Blossoms was really a discovery and I was happy to have visited it. It did not quite replace Premier - because it seems to be a bit more organised and therefore less exciting as far as discovery of books are concerned, but was filling up the gap left by Premiers winding down. The other store was Book Worm - I went to both their Shringar complex shop as well as the one near Select. This shop also has a decent collection of books and I really had a good chuckle at his audacity to take on competetion head on by opening a shop at Select's doorstep.
With Murthy's son Sanjai joining, Select has expanded on the first floor and a greater collection is available. However, I get this feeling that over the years Murthy and Sanjai are moving their shop to make it a bit more exclusive and specialised. The beauty of Select was that while it got some very exclusive books, you could also shop around for the Wodehouses, the Joyces and the Garcia Marquezes and an occasional Ludlum. I somehow get the feeling that Select has thinned down on generally available books and appears to have willingly yielded that space to the Blossoms and the Book Worms. I hope I am wrong. Because while shopping around Blossoms and Bookworm is quite okay, the experience of Select is that you could not only look and browse books, but also strike up a decent conversation with Murthy. Chances that you would bump into Ram Guha, Girish Karnad, Diwakar, or some other "star customers" of Murthy are very high. You could also have a flexideal with him. I recollect that Murthy has on occasions given me a book or two free, cut down 60-80% of his quoted price or remained stubborn with the price with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. He has on occasions handed over a book and said "I know that you need this very much, I also know that you cannot afford it because it is the first edition and is a collector's item. However, you can take it for a couple of days, photocopy it and return.." I cannot see myself trying to build in such a relationship with the new shops. I guess this is the difference between banking with Syndicate Bank and ICICI Bank...
I hope Shanbhag will find an outlet near the pub capital of the world. We need an insane place to keep our sanity.
A fascinating write up on the closing of a book shop in Khan Market Delhi by Nilanjana is available here.