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The magic of secondhand, independent bookstores

While corporate chains dominate the landscape, book lovers can still experience the delight of finding gems on south Mumbai's streets.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2012 01:38 IST

It's an unseasonal thing to be talking about reading and buying books, but you can blame Rahul Dravid for it. Earlier this week, at the release of cricinfo's anthology on him, called Timeless Steel, Dravid disclosed that when not gritting it out in the middle, he preferred the company of books.

"I was an intense sort of cricketer, the pressures of the game accompanying me," he confessed.

"Reading not only helped take my mind off the game but made me grow as a person."

Dravid is not the only cricketer I know who is passionate about books. Sunil Gavaskar was a compulsive reader on flights and in dressing rooms. Unlike Dravid, whose choice is eclectic but certainly not light, Gavaskar liked only pulp fiction on tours.

Interestingly, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who makes crores of rupees a year guffawing into television cameras, would read only philosophy and self-motivation books, at least during the first half of his playing years.

Different strokes for different folks. Outside of the cricket world, too, variety thrives.

"It is the matchless joy of reading something that gives you goosebumps - the talent, the imagination - that I cherish most," says Shobhaa De, author and columnist.

For her, reading a book is a very private experience.

"I need to be alone with a book," she says.

"It's the secret romance with words and ideas that I enjoy.''

I reckon this true with most readers.

But reading is only one half the joy of books. In some ways even more satisfying, the other is finding them. This is where growing up in south Mumbai was such a pleasure.

Buying books involves curiosity, discipline, stamina, self-indulgence and idiosyncrasy: and much in the manner of people having their favourite eateries, book shops also develop loyalty that can be as strong as intriguing.

In Mumbai, Dravid says he frequented Nalanda at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, when the Indian teams stayed there.

Given the security issues concerning cricketers, the poor chap perhaps missed out on a rich and varied experience of book-hunting that the city provides.

For countless people from my generation, Strand Book Stall on Pherozeshah Mehta Road remained the book lover's favourite. Not only was the owner, the late Mr Shanbagh, passionate about his vocation but so were the staff.

Shanbhag's commitment to the reader was infectious and made browsing at Strand a delightful experience. You could be assured of some sparkling conversation and insights into the writer's mind.

Close to Strand was Smoker's Corner, where penurious book lovers browse through a small but eclectic collection of secondhand books, arranged around the entrance and staircase of an old building. You could just sit and read if you had time to kill and didn't have Rs. 20 to spare. That time, alas, has passed.

Further down, near the old Handloom House, along DN Road and on the road to Churchgate, were the roadside secondhand book sellers. You never knew what you would find here and an empty afternoon could become a treasure hunt.

In the 1970s I discovered a makeshift shop selling the Playfair Cricket Annual and became an annual customer, until one fine day the rack and its owner vanished. The drive against unlicensed hawkers has made many such shops vanish.

The loss of the iconic New and Secondhand Bookshop in Dhobi Talao, a favourite haunt during my college says, is also felt deeply by a vast segment of the city's book lovers.

By the 1990s, corporatised versions of book shops had made their appearance in the city. Crossword on Warden Road, now at Kemp's Corner, brought a new experience into our lives with coffee shops, and this has since been furthered by Oxford at Churchgate, Kitab Khana at Flora Fountain and Landmark at Lower Parel.

But even though Indian publishing is booming like never before and more Indians are becoming writers, something has crumbled: Old, individualistic bookshops are drying up to be replaced by toy and stationery shops that also stock books. Nothing wrong with that, but it does take away some of the magic.

For the nostalgic though, there are some ways of still experiencing the delight of picking up a bargain on the streets of south Mumbai. The sidewalk opposite the CTO is one such. Between hundreds of books on management and how to pass entrance exams, the patient and the eagle-eyed can strike gold.

In March, I picked up a hardcover edition of Jack Fingleton's Masters of Cricket, published in 1959, an anthology of great players, which I couldn't find even in Australia. The vendor wanted Rs 250 and settled for Rs 100.

It's been my best purchase of the year.

When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds