Sunday, 1 May 2005

Where books go after they’re down-sized.

New and Secondhand Bookshop

A hundred years ago, Jamalbhai Ratansi, who ran a business in the raddi trade, decided to start a shop on the Kalbadevi Road, near what is now the Metro junction. You see, along with the old newspapers, he also frequently bought bundles of discarded books by weight. So he decided to start selling them piecemeal, at prices way below the original cost, but still a tidy mark-up from what he paid for them.

Thus was born New And Secondhand Bookshop, Bombay institution and landmark. In 1917, it moved to its current location, just across the street from the now-demolished building that was its previous home.

Jamalbhai has since departed for the Reading Room in the Sky, but N&S is still very much here, run by Sultan Vishram, Jamalbhai’s grandson and the current proprietor.

Over the years, N&S has had a long string of famous customers. Sultanbhai pulls out a fat file of press clippings, and tells me that B R Ambedkar, R K Narayan, Manohar Malgaonkar, Mulk Raj Anand, P L Deshpande and Osho Rajneesh all bought books from the shop.

Ambedkar, he says, never came in, always staying in his car outside, while someone else bought his books. Rajneesh (then plain Acharya) would come in at least once a week, and spend an hour browsing, before bargaining vigorously over the books he wanted, “He would say he was a sadhu, and the books should be given free. But my uncle would tell him, ‘Aap sadhu hain, hum to sansari hain na?’”

Which is not to say, he continues, after the chuckles have subsided, that commerce ever dominated love of books. Jamalbhai would frequently told customers who couldn’t afford books, “Go ahead, pay later. Learn, learn!” And his son, Sultanbhai’s uncle, loved to say “Saraswati and Lakshmi can’t sit in the same place.”

The “New” in the shop’s name is technically accurate – they do stock new titles on certain subjects like interior decoration and art – but the tight margins in that trade make it an unattractive business proposition, so they make up less than 10% of inventory. It’s the musty smell of old books that dominates. The very rare finds are stored under lock and key. But out there in the open is the gamut from a 1955 Encyclopaedia Britannica set and Shaw’s Complete Prefaces to elderly pulp paperbacks and mildly bruised coffee-table books. (My personal finds dating back from impoverished college years include a treasured 25th Anniversary Peanuts Collection, a stack of cloth-bound Wodehouses, and much crime and science fiction.)

Sultanbhai only began managing the shop actively in the last few months, after the retirement of his manager, Chandrakant Mankame. Mr Mankame had served the shop for sixty years, starting at age 11, as the founder’s gofer. Jamalbhai had sent him to night school, where he learned English. As he grew up, he was given more and more responsibility, till he became manager.

He has a mind like a computer, Sultanbhai tells me. In sixty years, he had bought almost every book in the shelves, and could remember exactly which dusty pile in which crammed shelf in which narrow row housed a certain book. Without this human database (in January, after seeing the shop into its centenary year, Mankame finally retired), Sultanbhai has begun to reorganise the shop so that less elephantine memories can cope, rearranging sections, making out an inventory, and perhaps, if he can bring himself to go entirely modern, a computerised database.

“There’s no other proper shop like ours in Bombay,” says Sultanbhai. And, unfortunately, there soon might be none.

“The book trade on the whole is suffering,” he says, “There is TV, computers… People don’t read that much anymore. And all these books, until we get a customer, they’re just someone’s discarded junk. [The reorganisation and renovation] is my last effort. If business does not improve, I will have to close down and sell.”

Isn’t there a market for rare books, I ask him. He shakes his head. “Once, yes, we’d find some rare books in our purchases. Now,” wry smile, “people are smart. They know what’s rare.”

Yes, I murmur to myself on the way out. But then New And Secondhand is rare too. And I hope to hell enough customers keep trooping in to take it into its second century, that Lakshmi can give Saraswati the teensiest helping hand.

New And Secondhand Bookshop, 526, Kalbadevi Road, Mumbai 400002. Ph: +91 22 22013314 Fax (care of): +91 22 22072024.

Published in the Outlook Traveller, May 2005 edition, in the column Favourite Things, under the title "Old Curiosity Shop" or some such.

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