To say that these have been challenging times for independent bookstores would be putting it mildly. So when a raging fire broke out this month at Kitab Khana – one of Mumbai’s favourite institutions for book lovers – it felt like just another unforeseen plot twist, perhaps the inevitable climax to this year’s cruel narrative of crippling pandemic, uncertainty and loss. Industrialist Samir Somaiya, who along with his wife Amrita Somaiya founded the bookshop almost a decade ago, was remarkably forthcoming about the tragedy, exclaiming in its aftermath: “The fire, as they say, had a total blast! Every one of our books was either burnt, drenched or smoked.”

Understandably, Kitab Khana will remain closed for the immediate future.

Being inspired

In past centuries, “kitab khana” was what Mughal emperors called the palace library. The term denoted “a home for books”, a sanctum scriptorium where precious manuscripts were protected from theft and – ironically enough – from all acts of nature, an iron-clad safeguard for the intellectual wealth of the kingdom so that knowledge could be passed on to future generations.

It was this very love and reverence for India’s rich history, culture and languages that fuelled the Somaiyas’ passion for books. Growing up in traditional business families that encouraged reading right from early childhood, Samir Somaiya and Amrita Somaiya found themselves exposed to a range of works in English, Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit and Urdu.

Later, as a chemical engineering student at Cornell University, Samir Somaiya discovered John Stuart Mill and Henry David Thoreau, opening himself up further to the universally therapeutic power that books could have. “My mother spent the last few years of her life in her room due to health problems,” he said, “but her world was large and happy because of all the books she read.”

As a new millennium dawned, bringing with it marriage, fatherhood and post-graduate studies at Harvard University, Samir Somaiya found himself drawn to the idea of starting a bookstore of his own one day. The Harvard Coop, a uniquely designed, on-campus bookstore spread over four floors, was his earliest inspiration for what would become the aesthetic of Kitab Khana.

Travelling extensively during the early 2000s, Samir Somaiya and Amrita Somaiya found themselves equally awed by Berlin’s Dussman Kultur, Paris’s Shakespeare And Company, and Ithaca, New York’s Autumn Leaves. What appealed to them most about these charming bookstores was how each authentically reflected the literary pulse and personality of their home city. The Somaiyas nurtured a similar dream for Mumbai – a great, grand landmark for books that would do justice to the diversity and creative energy of the vibrant megapolis.

During this time, they also visited the quaint Universal Booksellers in Lucknow’s Hazratganj area and were impressed by its collection of Hindi and Urdu books. Samir Somaiya and Amrita Somaiya were determined to own a bookstore that celebrated not only world literature, but also actively promoted books in as many Indian languages as possible.

Getting it all together

As the century’s first decade drew to a close, things started to fall into place almost magically. Somaiya Bhavan, the family’s 150-year-old heritage property, had been on lease to a bank for years; now it lay vacant after changes in the Rent Act had suddenly forced the tenant out. A beautiful colonial structure in the heart of South Mumbai’s effervescent Kala Ghoda arts district, Somaiya Bhavan was the ideal space for a contemporary bookstore.

Overlooking the exquisitely sculptured Flora Fountain, it had other cultural hotspots as its neighbours – among them the Bombay High Court, the Jehangir Art Gallery, St Xavier’s College, and the popular Irani restaurant, Britannia & Co. Down one winding street was Rhythm House, the go-to hub for music aficionados at the time, run by the Curmally family. Kitab Khana aspired to become a similar artistic oasis for booklovers.

But bookstores were not profitable ventures and Samir Somaiya’s father, the late Shantilal K Somaiya, needed some convincing. But he gave his blessing when he understood Kitab Khana’s vision and saw just how well it would complement Somaiya Vidyavihar, the family trust that promotes literacy and education.

It took many months to renovate Somaiya Bhavan, a mission led by Amrita Somaiya’s father, the architect Jitendra Mistry. His brief was to transform a sterile corporate office interior into all that Kitab Khana hoped to be – a warm repository of knowledge and imagination, a buzzing haven for stories and ideas, a welcoming “adda” for the city’s eclectic cross-section of writers and readers, curious browsers and wandering travellers.

It was then that serendipity struck a third time. The Somaiyas were on the lookout for a hands-on store manager and they found an able executive in the Vishakhapatnam-born T Jagath. During his quarter-century-long stint with Mumbai’s iconic Strand Book Stall, Jagath had come to understand the book business well. He also fiercely admired Strand’s owner-curator TN Shanbag, who believed that knowledge was free and had to be shared.

Strand, nestled in Fort’s commercial area, used to be a small outlet that managed to cram almost 3,000 books into its 750 square-foot space. Shanbag was magnanimous enough to offer customers discounts as high as 40 per cent, and often deferred payments for those who could not afford books to begin with. After Shanbag’s death in 2009, Jagath was looking to work with people who shared his mentor’s spirit of grace, generosity and intellectual curiosity. He found this in the Somaiyas, who believed that the value of books lay not in mere sales, but in the ways they could open the minds of readers.

Opening the doors

On March 2, 2011 – a date that marked Samir’s late mother’s birthday – Kitab Khana swung open its doors, welcoming visitors into a 5,000-square-foot treasure trove of books. With its décor of high ceilings, warm hanging lamps, wooden panelling and corinthian columns, Kitab Khana’s ambience spectacularly combined the feel of a spacious modern bookstore with that of an intimate old-world library.

A specially constructed mezzanine floor, accessed by a delightfully creaky spiral staircase, added to its mystique. Up here was where a quiet browser could find literary classics from all over the world, including the works of subcontinental greats such as Ghalib, Iqbal and Kabir. Also on offer was a curated selection of Hindi, Gajarati, Marathi, Pali and Sanksrit literature – some in original form and others in translation – which included the Murty Classical Library of India series.

Further, Kitab Khana actively sourced books from local, regional language publishers like Motilal Banarsidass and smaller imprints such as Navneet, Tulika and Pratham. The store’s multi-genre, multilingual ethos was clearly reflected on one of its walls, which carried quotes from the Ashtavakra Gita and by authors such as Mahatma Gandhi, Shakespeare and Hermann Hesse.

In sharp contrast to the mezzanine’s quiet, meditative air was the electric energy of Kitab Khana’s ground floor. Here, its wide mint-coloured walls were lined with rows and columns of books for every possible type of reader. What stood out was a vast children’s section created and nurtured by Amrita Somaiya herself; today, she remembers fondly how their daughter Gayatri, then 10 years old, helped curate and arrange its books.

The stacked tables.

The heartbeat of the store was located in its massive central space, where solid teak tables stood stacked high, tempting book-shoppers with a mix of prize-winning novels, pulp fiction paperbacks, motivational self help titles and vintage celebrity memoir.

Kitab Khana’s unique selling point was simple and dizzyingly successful from the start. In keeping with the philosophy that the joy of reading should never be hampered by ones budget, every book was stamped with a flat 20 per cent discount. The attractive pricing led to more than high sales; it established Kitab Khana’s spirit of earthiness and inclusivity.

Walk-in visitors especially valued being able to browse casually without the pressure to purchase, an ethos that the unintrusive sales staff had been trained to respect. In homage to the late TN Shanbag, Jagath further insisted that every store employee read at least two books a month, something he had learnt to do in his early working days at Strand.

Author Murzban F Shroff testifies to the efficiency, friendliness and helpfulness of the Kitab Khana team. “Whenever I asked for a book that wasn’t in stock, the staff would note my request, order it and let me know as soon as it arrived,” said the writer of Breathless In Bombay and the forthcoming Third Eye Rising, alluding to a service rarely offered at the more impersonal and synthetic chain bookstores.

Kitab Khana – a name that Samir Somaiya had first thought of as a clever pun on food – also gained, well, brownie points for its in-house caféteria. Aptly called Food For Thought and run by Reshma Sanghi and Kapil Sanghi, it offered eclectic vegetarian cuisine from around the world, including Mumbai’s signature street snack vada pao, and, in Amrita’s words, “the best brew of coffee for book lovers.”

The café drew buyers. Colaba residents Sushila Kapadia and Utsav Kapadia would make it a point to lunch at Kitab Khana at least once a month. This often led to an afternoon of browsing, and sometimes surprise discoveries like The Power of Meow, a truth-seeking memoir ostensibly written by the Dalai Lama’s cat.

Setting up events

What made Kitab Khana’s tightly-knit community of bibliophiles and customers grow was the store’s packed calendar of book events, launches and readings. Its brightly-lit foyer, right beside the café, offered an elevated platform for participating authors and a surrounding seating space for up to thirty guests. Amrita Somaiya said, “There would be at least four events a month, one devoted to an Indian language, one to children, and two to promote either an established or debuting author.” Well-known novelists like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, popular children’s author Katie Bagli, and theatre director Sanjna Kapoor all made appearances at Kitab Khana’s cheery literary salons.

The Marathi poet, translator and publisher Hemant Divate recalls one of Kitab Khana’s signature events in recent years. In 2016, “Writing In Troubled Times” offered poetry readings by Divate, Ranjit Hoskote, Menka Shivdasani and Adil Jussawala, among others. Live music by street artistes and a carnival-like atmosphere – similar to that of the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival – attracted many of the city’s lovers of verse.

“Kitab Khana used its popularity to raise awareness about poetry, and through that, about so many social issues,” said Divate, who runs Paperwall publishing, with its imprint Poetrywala, with his wife Smruti Divate. Kitab Khana was a “home away from home,” for Divate, who remembers that when Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus was banned in India, the store management made sure to keep a prized copy of the book for him.

As 2020 rolled around, Kitab Khana – hailed as “one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world” – had averaged a daily footfall of up to 450 customers and annual sales of roughly Rs 5 crore. The store regularly curated upto 40 per cent of its titles from international publishing hotspots like the London Book Fair, continuously innovated on its roster of literary events, and maintained its zealous championing of books via special displays at schools, educational institutes and youth festivals.

“We weren’t really hit hard by competition from e-commerce platforms like Amazon and Flipkart, they have their strengths and we had ours,” said Jagath. “Over the years, our appeal as a physical store for books was not only sustained, but grew. People sensed our love for books, for our loyal community of readers, for our Mumbai. And customers just flocked to us.”

But then, the pandemic hit.

Locking down, like the country

When lockdowns clamped down on the world last March, Kitab Khana found itself downing its shutters for the first time in its nine-year-old history. It was a desolate time for a city normally teeming with millions, and for a store that had seen a full house of customers right from its opening day. When the bookshop restarted operations three months later on June 8, it remained closed to the public; only a couple of staffers were allowed in to take orders for books that could be delivered in the vicinity. Yet the bond between the store and the people who loved it remained strong.

Kitab Khana had, throughout its existence, maintained a digital sales arm on its website; now it launched an even more aggressive social media campaign on its Facebook and Instagram pages. Customers confined to their homes and eager for good reads could log in to the store’s latest book recommendations, exchange notes on new releases, attend poetry sessions (resourcefully set around a “virtual” campfire) and tune in to discussions hosted by authors all over the country.

“We had audiences of up to fifty people for a single online event,” says Jagath, talking of the community support the store received all through the summer. “We were looking forward to the day when we could reopen to full capacity.”

Unfortunately, that day is yet to come.

From August 1, the date Kitab Khana officially resumed open-door business, it saw just a trickle of customers. The atmosphere within was a far cry from the store’s buzzing pre-pandemic days, given the new social distancing norms and strict hygiene protocols that had to be enforced. Further, with the monsoon at its peak and public trains grounded, movement in Mumbai remained low; anticipating this, Kitab Khana had tied up with a special courier service so that books could be smoothly delivered directly to homes.

Still, visitors were kind – on most days, a single buyer would purchase up to five or six books at one go instead of the token one or two. Yet, by the end of September, said Jagath, “Customer footfall was a mere tenth of what it had been before the pandemic hit, and sales had plunged to a fifth of what they had been in the previous year.”

Recovery came slowly but steadily over the traditional festive months of October and November. During this time, sales rose from 20 per cent to 35 per cent of the previous year’s level, and, alongside, the mood at the store started to lift as well. By early December, sales growth in the peak retail period over the Christmas and New Year season were projected to touch the 50 per cent mark.

But no one – not even the ever-cautious Jagath – could have predicted what was in store for Kitab Khana, leave alone that an ill-fated year was about to deliver its harshest blow. In hindsight, Samir Somaiya’s philosophical words rang true and clear: “We thought we were timeless. But we are all at the mercy of time and the elements.”

Going up in flames

At 4.45 pm on December 9, a fire in the store café’s kitchen sparked a fierce blaze of flames, one that swept out of control within minutes. The Kitab Khana staff – and others who rushed in from the store’s surrounding areas – fought valiantly, but nothing could prevent the outcome.

Balls of fire had surged, tornado-like, up the kitchen’s chimney and along ducts that led directly into the store’s precious mezzanine. By the time the fire department arrived some twenty minutes later, Kitab Khana’s upper floor was almost completely gutted, with every one of its racks, shelves and books burnt to a crisp.

Even though the fire had not physically spread below the mezzanine, the ground floor saw overwhelming and irreversible damage. Here, books had been destroyed not by heat but by massive deposits of soot and strong jet sprays of water.

Luckily, every one of the thirty people on the Kitab Khana premises had been evacuated within the first few minutes of the inferno. Later that night, the store put out a prayer of gratitude for the fact that there had been no human casualties. For the management, this mattered far more than Kitab Khana’s glaring material and financial losses.

These were estimated at roughly Rs 2 crore in all, a figure that accounted for the annihilation of the store’s entire stock of 45,000 books, along with the estimated cost of the extensive, top-to-bottom renovation that would be needed.

The effect of the fire on the books.

Over the next few days, calls, emails and messages of support via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram poured in – from Kitab Khana’s faithful tribe of writers, artists, publishers, booklovers and well-wishers across India, and from cities as far away as London and New York. Closer home in Mumbai, grieving fans reached out in ways that affirmed the city’s trademark character of hope, enterprise and regeneration.

Well-known names that included poet Ranjit Hoskote, authors Jerry Pinto and Murzban F Shroff, as well as architect Kaiwan Mehta, either made personal visits to the devastated store or pledged their commitment, in ways big and small, towards its revival. Others like Hemant Divate immediately offered their personal time to help the mammoth on-site clean-up operation.

“What matters most is how you walk through the fire,” writer Charles Bukowski had famously said. His words could well point to what Kitab Khana would now need. The Somaiyas, along with Jagath, have firmly resolved to launch a new – and perhaps improved – Kitab Khana in time for the store’s tenth anniversary on March 2, 2021.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.