Books bring people closer and bookstores bring countries together. This is exactly what bookstores in Connaught Place did during the 1930s.
With shops modelled on the lines of legendary bookstores in England — such as Foyles and Blackwell in terms of their interior décor and book collection — these new stores brought with them London-style book retailing and soon became the newly built city’s literary landmarks.
However, before New Delhi was built in the early 1930s, bookshops at Nai Sadak and Kashmere Gate in the Walled City fed the citizens’ thirst for knowledge. Between 1933 and 1936, several bookshops opened in Connaught Place.
Their collection was large and eclectic with bookshelves running from the front of the shop to the back and rising up from the floor to the ceiling. Booklovers used to go there to browse, read or just soak in their quaint ambience.
Idandas Book Co, Oxford Book & Stationary Company, Rama Krishna & Sons, Bhavnani & Sons were some such stores. Though these four pioneering stores have shut down, thankfully, CP still has some independent shops such as ED Galgotia & Sons, New Book Depot and Amrit Book Company from the early 30s, which continue to retain their old-world charm.
From the early 1930s till Independence, these bookstores in CP predominantly boasted of a British clientele. Besides, they also catered to civil servants, libraries of government departments, top Indian leaders and many affluent, Anglicised Indians from Civil Lines.
“These bookstores of New Delhi stood out not just for their very European interiors and vast collection, but also for the knowledge of their owners. My father’s favourite bookshop was Oxford, from where he bought most of his books. As soon as a book shop would open in the city, he would immediately go and visit it,” says DN Chaudhuri, 78, author of Delhi: Light, Shades and Shadows. He is the son of legendary author Nirad C Chaudhuri, who came to live in Delhi in the early 1940s.
The owners of most of these bookshops in CP were well-read, well-behaved and well-dressed. “Rama Krishna always wore a suit, smoked a pipe and engaged his customers in long conversations about the books they were buying from him,” says RV Smith, Delhi’s classic chronicler and the author of The Delhi That No-one Knows.
These bookshops owners were pretty courteous and it was a tradition to let their customers freely browse the books for as long as they wanted. “In my teens, I often used to go to the Galgotias and browse books for long durations.
However, some people used to try and to take down notes from the books on small pieces of paper, which the shop owners did not allow,” says Chaudhuri, who gives an interesting account of CP in the 1940s in his book.
But unlike the bookshops in the Walled City, none of the stores in CP with the exception of Amrit Book Company stocked vernacular books. They, however, sell French and German language books. In the 1930s and 40s, the display windows of these bookshops were dominated by new arrivals, mostly by Penguin, which revolutionised book publishing in the 1930s through its high quality, inexpensive paperbacks, marked by well-designed colourful jackets. Most CP bookshops directly imported books from England. They made their selections from advance book jackets and booklist that publishers sent them from England.
“Reading was a popular hobby those days, thanks to the fact that missionary schools and colleges put a special emphasis on reading habits. The cost of a paperback was R1 and that of the library edition, now known as hardback, was Rs 3 to Rs 4,” says Satish Sundra, 74, a resident of Sunder Nagar who studied at St Stephen’s.