My friends know me to be a book lover. A book lover, yes, a book reader, maybe not! I do acquire books and they adorn my book shelves. If you ask me how many I have read, my answer: maybe 60% of my collection. If you see a dichotomy between “book-loving” and “book-reading”, that might perhaps need an explanation. But that maybe in another piece.
This post is on something else. It is on that great institution and its founder; Mr T. N. Shanbhag’s “Strand Book Stall”.
I have been visiting Strand since the early 80’s. I have stayed in Mumbai for several years as a student and also subsequently as a junior-level executive working there. I would religiously visit the store once a month on a Saturday. Then I shifted to Pune. I would always squeeze-in a visit to the store on my Mumbai visits. Picking books-after- books as and when my finances would permit me to.
Strand was tucked into a narrow lane in south Mumbai, Sir P.M. Road. By the standards of the new bookstores, it was decidedly small, not more than a thousand square foot including the mezzanine floor. And thankfully enough, it did not try to compete with the other stores. No greeting cards, no gift articles, no music CDs, and no coffee. The only stimulant served were books. Thousands and thousands of books stacked neatly on the shelves. The latest and the best. And largely non-fiction.
The staff was invariably knowledgeable and highly polite. You were never hustled into buying a book and were free to sit around for hours browsing. And the store had two very unique features, the price and the owner himself.
First, the price. Everyone was given a discount of 20% on the MRP of even the latest book. If I remember correctly it then used to be 25% on Penguin books. One did not have to ask for the discount, it was given automatically. And even better was the fabulous discounts offered on very slightly dated international titles. Like around the time the Indian paperback edition of “A Suitable Boy” was released, I could buy a copy of the international edition, hard-bound, at a price lower than the paperback. There were some books (or their special editions) which were available only at Strand, Mumbai. For example, the hard-back, colour edition of Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”. The store person recommended this book to me and guaranteed that I could not find this book in any other store in India. I had not heard of the book before. But I liked it, and its price, and I bought it. For the next few months during my travels I would check for this book at big book stores across the country. I did see the paperback edition (with no pictures) but not a hard-bound one. This book, a book version of a popular BBC TV serial of the same name is one of my prized collections. In case you are interested, this book is about the history of science through the millennia.
And then there was the owner, Mr Shanbhag. A short, soft-spoken gentleman. Always there at hand to help a customer. His knowledge of books was such that I would think that he had read all the books in his store. I remember him advising a customer who was confused when offered 4 different editions of Shakespeare’s collected works. Mr Shanbhag walked upto the customer and told him precisely which edition to buy given the customer’s requirements. I do not remember the logic given, but I could see the customer make a decision quickly after Mr Shanbhag’s intervention and left the store a happy person.
I had several personal interactions with Mr Shanbhag. In fact, I used to seek him out on some pretext or the other and engage him in a chat. And I always went back richer with ideas, and books of course. It is due to his advice I bought Toynbee’s abridged one-volume edition of “A Study of History”. This international edition even has the store’s name prominently printed on the dust jacket! And it was he who advised me on the hardcover editions of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984”. “Look at the embossed spine”, he said, as he removed the dust jackets. And he also told me how these would be great purchases as the paper was acid-free, hence would not “yellow” with time! By the way, Mr Shanbhag was the one who advised me on Bronowski’s book referred to earlier.
Whenever I browse though my collection, I can still remember the advice Mr Shanbagh had given me on nearly each book.
While I mention all of this in the past tense, I am told by friends who visit the store that it still remains the same. Similar collection of books, similar discounts, similar courteous staff and continued attention to the customer. What is perhaps missing is the constant presence of Mr Shanbhag himself who has been ailing for a while now.
I have been in Bangalore for the past eight years and I am lucky that Mr Shanbhag’s daughter, Ms Vidya Virkar, runs the only other Strand store outside Sir PM Road, Mumbai; this one at Manipal Center on Dickenson Road. (There are a few other Strand mini-stores at Bangalore but these are in the campuses of IT companies like Infosys and Wipro). The Bangalore store is decided larger that the Mumbai parent, but follows the same levels of customer service. And an identical product mix and pricing strategy. The lovely Ms Vidya Virkar continues her father’s work at Bangalore.
Needless to say, my personal collection of books is built nearly entirely from purchases made at Strand.
Mr Shanbhag’s contribution to the business of books has been so great that he has been the only book retailer to have ever been awarded a Padma Shri! An appropriate token of appreciation for this great man who decided some 60 years ago that his mission in life was to provide great books to his customers at affordable prices!
And that brings me to a little anecdote which I will never ever forget. Way back in the 80’s, I had selected my books and realized that I was short of some Rs 150 on the billed amount of Rs 1200. And this was after the usual 20% discounts etc. Those were the days before I had acquired my first credit card and I hence had to settle the bill in cash. I felt a bit sheepish and was figuring out which book to drop from my selection when Mr Shanbhag sauntered upto the cashier’s desk. Even as I was struggling with my dilemma, he had his staff pack my entire selection and hand the bag to me. Before I could say something, Mr Shanbhag gently said,” Never mind about the remaining amount. You have selected these books since you wanted them, and you must take them all. Thank you for visiting our store. And enjoy the books.” Mr Shanbhag held the door open for me as I stepped out. Wondering how some people can go so much out of the way to make others happy.
Mr Shanbhag, you do not know me, and I have not seen you for nearly a decade now. But I want to convey to you my heartfelt thanks for all the joys you have continued to bring to me over the years, including my years in Bangalore.
Thanks you, sir!