...I was in junior school when I first walked into Premier. I think I had a gift coupon. Other bookstores in the area looked at schoolboys not as customers then or for the future, but pesky adolescents who needed to be followed around suspiciously and asked questions till they left the store in sheer annoyance.
At Premier, Shanbhag waved a genial “hello” and carried on with whatever he was doing, leaving you to your devices. Loyalty came from being treated like adults.
Importantly, when he occasionally sensed that only a shortage of funds kept this schoolboy from buying a book, he either gave ridiculous discounts or didn’t take a payment at all, saying vaguely, “We can do that later”, looking (I imagined) like a smaller version of Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth.
Premier was the most welcoming and wildly stocked bookstore and meeting place for both young lovers and storied intellectuals, many of the former hoping to grow into the latter in time…
The finest bookstores in Bengaluru today are those which deal mainly in second-hand books. They stock new books too, and give marvellous discounts on them. Over the years I have found greater excitement in stores around the world that surprise. The Strand in New York, Skoob Books in London (and those that were on Charing Cross), for example.
Used-books stores promise the unexpected. They (and their customers) thrive on serendipity. How civilised a city is can be gauged by the number of bookstores it has; in particular used-book stores. It takes a certain refinement to invest in used books.
It is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarised beyond a certain point, wrote George Orwell, and it’s a sentiment I share.
Virginia Woolf best captured the creative madness in such a store:
“Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”
There is a sense of urgency too – you must buy the book the first time you see it. It may never be replaced, unlike those in large chain stores where books are like ducks in a shooting gallery and an identical one pops up when one is removed.
The spirit of Premier lives on in Bengaluru. Blossom Book House’s Mayi Gowda and The Bookworm’s Krishna Gowda are genial, knowledgeable men who gave up the professions they were trained for (engineering and management respectively) to sell books.
Even if unknowingly, they might be paying tribute to another professional – a lawyer – who established what was for long the best-known and best-stocked such store in the city, Select, in a lane just off Brigade Road.
Select was established in 1945 by a lawyer from Andhra, K B K Rao. Rao’s son, K K S Murthy, an aeronautical engineer, carried the family business forward. Select is now run by the third generation bibliophile, Sanjay, who trained as an accountant.
Select is the place for rare and antiquarian books too. Murthy once had a first edition of Alice in Wonderland. It was, according to Pradeep Sebastian, India’s leading authority on books, “the first true printing of Alice in Wonderland, the scarce 1865 copy that preceded the authorised 1866 first edition from Macmillan. Only 16 copies of this 1865 Alice are known to exist, most of them in institutional collections.”
A hop step and jump away from Select is Church Street, the books street, the finest in the country. This is the place for the latest books, used books and everything in between.
Mayi Gowda’s Blossom began in a tiny space where you had to step out to think. Today it deals in books from two buildings on the same street – one a three-storey tightly packed area and the other a sprawling space, similarly packed. That’s a huge increase in real estate, never mind number of books, in less than two decades.
Next to the new Blossom is Krishna Gowda’s The Bookworm, of roughly similar area.
Independent bookshops in the age of large chain stores and Amazon are doubly special. Not just for what they are, but for what they symbolise. Sheer guts, for one. Passion, for another.
“If what a bookstore offers matter to you,” wrote the novelist Ann Patchett in a charming essay on opening a bookstore in Nashville, “then shop at a bookstore.”
More lasting friendships are made in a bookshop than in a bar. For, all are equal in the presence of books. Also, as someone said, you can always find what you are looking for online. But it takes a bookstore to find what you were not looking for. This is something Mayi Gowda is keenly aware of. Blossom is the establishment that changed the texture of Church Street.
Here is his story in his own words: “I was born in a small village called Rangasamudra, around 25km from Mysore. My parents were agriculturists. After I finished school I did a diploma course in Mysore. After the final exam, I told my father I wanted to do engineering, but he said he couldn’t afford it.
“He gave me Rs.300, and said that was all he could spare. I came to Bengaluru with that, and found a job in a factory. I shared a room with a friend from my village. After three months, I got my diploma results. I had finished seventh in Karnataka state. I now joined the University Visveswaraya College of Engineering.
“It was college in the day, and work at night. For the first two semesters, results were bad. Meanwhile my friend moved back to the village, and I didn’t have a place to stay. I gave up both my studies and my job. I found a room in a hostel near the Majestic bus stand.
“This was the turning point. Near my hostel, I saw people selling second-hand books, and started helping out. I borrowed some books from them and sold them on the pavement at Mahatma Gandhi Road. Business was good, so I went back to engineering and did well.
“After completing my course, I started Blossom Book House in 2002, with around 1500 books in a 200 square foot place. Today Blossom has two locations – 3000 sq ft and 8600 sq ft – with around 500,000 books.”
Bookworm’s Krishna Gowda has a remarkably similar story. He too hails from Rangasamudra. He too sold books on the pavement on M G Road, switching between college in the morning and work in the evening. He too moved into a building at the turn of the century.
Let Krishna take over here: “My father was a farmer and mother a housewife. I am the sixth child. I helped out by selling vegetables and by doing housework too.
“I completed my pre-university course with the highest marks in the village. My father insisted I find a job, but when friends told him I should study further, he relented, and I attended evening college.
“One day in June1997, I met Mayi Gowda. Later, he asked if I was willing to work in Bengaluru and continue in an evening college.
Since my family respected Mayi Gowda they didn’t ask anything about the job or salary. I was just over sixteen years old.
“We started by selling books in front of Higginbothams on MG Road. After graduating in commerce from Vijaya Evening College, I began a management course. I quit the job with Mayi after three and a half years. I started selling books outside the Shrungar Shopping complex near the earlier spot.
“After my MBA, I was unsure of what to do. I read a lot; I was fascinated by old books and vintage covers. We had a beautiful edition of Of Human Bondage. Mayi told me to sell it for at least Rs 100. A customer offered Rs 110, but I didn’t sell. I didn’t want to part with such a beautiful edition.
“Mayi was angry, but I said it’s a beautiful edition, just keeping it in the shop makes me happy. Today I have good collection of such books at Bookworm.
“I opened a shop inside the Shrungar complex. Word of mouth gained us customers.
“Now, the 5000 square feet Bookworm has over 1,50,000 books (and more than 3,00,000 books in the warehouse).”
Some years ago, Krishna Gowda organised a function at his shop for booklovers of Bengaluru to meet the legendary Shanbhag, who by then had even been the subject of a documentary. It was a nice gesture, and a way of paying a tribute to a man who had inspired a whole culture in the city.
Shanbhag had pulled the shutters down seven or eight years earlier. “I gave away the name board and some old furniture to a scrap dealer,” he told his audience, many of whom were seeing him in the flesh for the first time. “Only intangible memories have heritage value,” he explained, “not the tangible accessories.”
As a schoolboy it had been my wish to see my books on Shanbhag’s shelves. That I would write them there was no doubt in my mind. But my first book appeared two years after the closure. But intangible memories I have plenty of…
Excerpted with permission from Why Don’t You Write Something I Might Read? Reading, Writing & Arrhythmia, Suresh Menon.