Tucked away in an inconspicuous bylane in Pune’s affluent Koregaon Park area, 63-year-old Surekha Sharma’s Sophia Book Store attracts a steady clip of visitors hailing from various parts of the world. The store is a small refurbished room, in which books in over 14 languages, including German, Japanese, Swedish, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, Hebrew, Persian, Russian, and Italian, are arranged with meticulous attention to detail. The unobtrusive book store is like an idealised United Nations, with a French translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude sitting in cosy harmony beside a Hebrew translation of VS Naipaul’s travelogues.
Sophia’s Book Store owes the diversity of its collection to its proximity to the Osho International Meditation Resort, which is located less than a kilometer away. “Foreigners who come to visit the Osho Ashram cannot sleep without reading,” Sharma said. “And it is because of them that my bookstore has worked.” Japanese, German and Swedish books sell very quickly from her store, although very few customers buy Hindi books.
“If it would have been only Indians around here, my bookstore would have never done so well,” Sharma said. “I don’t blame Indians, because we don’t have the money for books. I never had the money, so I sought out libraries. But foreigners can afford a reading habit.”
Sharma accepts used books from her customers, and sells them for anywhere between Rs 80 and Rs 250, passing on half the price to the original owner after she makes a sale. She also allows readers to borrow used books at half-price. Although Sharma cannot read all the languages represented in her bookshop, she has learned to recognise the books she would prefer to stock. “I began my business very innocently, and I still run it that way. I ask the people giving me the book what it is about,” she said. “I think the only reason this place has worked is because I absolutely love books. I want to know more about books. So if a customer doesn’t give me a satisfactory explanation about a book, I put it aside and ask other visitors.”
Has she christened the establishment Sophia Book Store because she hopes that the name will make it more accessible to foreigners? “When I got married, I used to wear skirts and blouses and tie my hair back into a ponytail. My husband said that I look like a Christian, and he called me Sophia as a joke. The name stuck,” she said.
The story behind the store
Sharma had dreamed of opening a book store since she was a young woman. “When I finished my BA, I was told by my father and brother that I should not work,” she said. “I asked them if I could start a library of my own, but they refused that as well.”
But Sharma’s love for books and her desire to run a bookstore only grew with time. “My aunt took me to a beautiful library in Bombay soon after I completed my education. It had shelves covered by glass panels to protect the books from dust. I was awestruck. I had never seen such luxury before. I thought that my book store would be like that.”
She eventually began to work as a typist after her father died, but had to quit the job when she got married. “I was reading Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay at the time and I was tremendously affected by it. And I thought, if it is giving me so much joy, I would like to share it with others. I firmly decided to open a bookshop at some time in the future. I thought that if nothing else, I would start giving books free to people in my village. And that was a lofty dream for someone who had no money.”
When she was forced to move to Goa with her husband owing to financial difficulties, Sharma worked in a bookstore to learn the intricacies of the business. “The couple running the store was not very well-informed, and I would help them with everything. Later, my husband and I returned to Pune, and that’s when I decided I was ready to finally start a bookshop.”
In the summer of 1994, Sharma borrowed some money from her mother and sister-in-law and started Sophia’s Book Store with 10 of her husband’s used books. “I thought that if this didn’t work, I would sell my jewellery and repay their money. But this little shop worked and I returned their money within a month. Some of my family refused to lend me any money because they thought it was ridiculous to invest ten or twenty thousand rupees in a used bookstore. They said they would buy me gold if I needed, but wouldn’t give me the money for my shop. They lectured me about the stupidity of my venture, but I just heard them out and came home.”
Sharma said she owes her success to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. “A German woman visiting the [Osho] resort asked me if I could procure the book for her when it had just been released. I managed, and word spread among the people in the resort that I could get the book. Several people bought the book from me – I must have sold hundreds of copies.”
Foreigners also patronised the bookstore because it was being run by a woman, Sharma revealed. “All around the world, people feel that women are not treated well by men in India. A German customer was telling me that women in India tolerate a lot of their husband’s tantrums. I learned from these women to not remain dependent on my husband for my business needs.”
Surviving changing times
Several other bookstores operating in the area were forced to close after the advent of online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart, Sharma said. She feels that her bookstore might have survived because she stocks used books at affordable rates. “One of my customers said that her landlord has told her that he would not accept any parcels or letters on her behalf, and she can’t always be home when the parcels arrive,” Sharma said. “Also, Amazon does not take books back if you want to return them after you’re done reading them. I do. And delivery is not always free, so that helps as well.”
Sharma said that she has learned a lot from the people who visit her shop. “I don’t know why my little shop became such a big success. I feel it is a miracle. Now I don’t need the money. But I am in love with this place and I learn so much every day from readers across the world. I won’t shut this shop as long as I am capable of running it.”
She hopes that her shop can become a space where readers can relax. “I just want people to feel like staying on in my bookshop for a few minutes. They need not give me business. But whoever comes to me should feel happy in my bookshop,” she said.