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Strand to shut: Bookstores need to turn a new page

Mumbai’s most iconic bookshop never really recovered from the death of TN Shanbhag, its charismatic, dynamic, erudite, passionate owner in 2009.

mumbai Updated: Feb 22, 2018 23:57 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
mumbai news,strand bookstall,bookstore
Strand Book Stall on Pherozeshah Mehta Road.(HT File)

In a way, the closing down of Strand Book Stall on Pherozeshah Mehta Road by the end of this month is — to use the title of a Mario Gabriel Garcia classic — chronicle of a death foretold.

Mumbai’s most iconic bookshop never really recovered from the death of TN Shanbhag, its charismatic, dynamic, erudite, passionate owner in 2009. Although his family and staff did make a valiant attempt, trained as they were by the great man himself, it was not to be.

To be fair, it might have been difficult for venerated Shanbag himself to sustain the venture given the rapid and cathartic changes technology has brought about, imperiling retail businesses: Bookshops and the like perhaps more than others.

In the Indian context, there is a paradox at play here. Book publishing sales have been growing rapidly in the past couple of decades despite compunctions of doomsday specialists who have been predicting the demise of the reading habit.

Conversion from illiteracy to literacy has seen a sustained spike in readership, perhaps best reflected in the rise in circulation of newspapers. In the West, newspapers are facing major slump; in India the newspaper industry is thriving.

Research indicates this trend should continue for the next 15-20 years. Like newspapers, books etc too are finding more takers in the country. One has only to look at the mushrooming of publishing houses, Indian writers and literature festivals across the country to appreciate this growth. Yet, Damocles’s Sword hangs over bookshops because of the blistering pace of change technology impels. Online stores have sounded the death-knell for many retail businesses across the world, and as India gets increasingly plugged into technology, this is playing out here too. E-books add another constraining dimension for booksellers.

Bookshops have to be either recast for multiple products, or revise scale of operations, more likely both, to remain alive. High cost of purchase/rentals of outlets in urban centres and diminishing sales make it uphill for standalone enterprises of certain kinds to survive.

The New And Secondhand Bookshop at Dhobi Talao shut down some years back, Rhythm House and Samovar at Kala Ghoda not too long back. Now Strand is sputtering to a stop after soldiering on for more than a decade though the environment was severely testing.

Yet what will survive for clients of Strand Book Stall is how a small, nondescript shop became integral to Mumbai life. In fact, client is a wrong word for, because of Shanbag, Strand made them friends. He had a remarkable passion for books and for selling them. Making any visitor to his shop into a booklover was a skill his and his alone. It was not just that you were given a chair and then left to yourself. It was the amazing knowledge that he packed into his head and shared with visitors, even those who didn’t buy books.

For those who did, he had a remarkable memory for their likes and dislikes. Whether it was cricket, philosophy, history, classics, avante garde or post- modern stuff — you name it — Shanbhag had an unerring knack of knowing what you wanted and where to look for it.

Other bookshops and even publishers were not always fond of Strand and Shanbhag as I discovered when I co-wrote and co-published a book on 50 years of Indian Independence in 1997. He was eager to walk the extra mile to help authors. The huge discounts that he gave customers came from his own profit. This also showed up his competition as greedy. As books went out of print, he worked on publishers to give him the last, spare copies. Always, he wanted more for his customers. After Shanbag’s passing away in 2009, the courtesy and customs that had always defined Strand Book Stall were preserved, but gradually the breadth and depth of reading matter of earlier started to wane. The shop remained, but the soul wasn’t there anymore. Now the shop too goes. An era ends, leaving booklovers in mourning.

First Published: Feb 22, 2018 23:57 IST