Small is beautiful. Also warm, personalised and nurturing when it comes to memories of cosy bookshops. A few still survive. It’s the day of big, brash bookstore chains whose uniformed staffers know nothing about the books they sell. Neither do they know about the pure pleasure customers feel when on first-name terms with a proprietor who remembers individual tastes.
My haunts were brightly christened Happy Book Stall in Bandra, downtown Strand and Nalanda. The music and books of a brother, older by four years, become yours for life. So, instead of just Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton’s St Clare stories, I trailed him from Biggles and Billy Bunter to Alistair MacLean and Nevil Shute – with PG Wodehouse piled high on laugh-out-loud afternoons.
Strolling into Happy Books on Hill Road (where it continues to delight young readers, albeit in a new building now), we’d be all wired with anticipation. The bespectacled manager would dust his checked shirt, then lead us in with an inviting, “Wait till you see this!”
Not that we were some rare breed of Children Who Read; he was equally welcoming with every kid. Back then, without the distraction of Internet chats and iPods, books were a prime passion. Intimate hubs, our neighbourhood bookshop was a comfort zone, nose stuck between pages of a favourite paperback.
Tuned into titles which thrilled different clients, TN Shanbhag of Strand Bookshop at Fort was a charming friend for two generations of booklovers. He offered generous discounts and a space where trust ruled.
Once I’d only enough money for either Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen or Do Butlers Burgle Banks? “Take both, you enjoy Wodehouse. Pay whenever,” Shanbhag said, quietly placing the pair of Penguins in my hand.
Visits to Nalanda proved as gratifying. I’d accompany my parents to buy certain books better stocked at this bookshop of the Taj in Colaba. A salesman overheard me ask my mother for marzipan chocolates from the hotel’s patisserie.
Can’t recall whether mum indulged me… but the next time we walked in there (it was suggested we track the same title the following week), the man held out two marzipan squares. It was an age of innocence. Children weren’t taught to suspect kindness from strangers. I said, “Thank you” and ate.