Bangalore lost one of its treasure-trove - the Premier Book Shop - run by a reticent, but slyly witty man named T.S. Shanbhag, who learnt his trade from his uncle, the legendary Mr. T.N. Shanbhag of Strand Book Stall, Bombay. Premier Book Shop became a casualty to 'development' which has taken epidemic proportions and also claimed iconic buildings like the over half a century old India Coffee House (ICH) on M.G. Road apart from numerous parks and trees, including the famed M.G. Road boulevard - as its victims. All that is now left of "Premier" is first-time director Asha Ghosh's documentary film "Mr Shanbag's Shop" that has charmed viewers in San Francisco, New York and Bangalore alike. Not sure about our Netas and policy makers though!
Situated on Church Street - a prime location - the property value of Premier Book Shop had increased over time, and thus the proprietor was forced to close his shop when the landlord decided not to renew his lease.
But before Bangalore's conversation with freshly minted English books continued with this important little institution in 1971, the city had been well served by an excellent bookshop - the Select Bookshop - since 1945. Sixty-six years down the line, 'Select' is still going strong and holding out despite several pretenders. It has survived the onslaught of air-conditioned clones of Fox Books with quiet grace... unlike Meg Ryan's The Shop Around the Corner in the 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail. Situated in a short and narrow by lane off Brigade Road, this is an oasis of calm amidst all the bustling chaos. There is a particular calmness in this place, which almost seems like a reverential hush intended for the books themselves. The owner, the amiable and witty Mr. K.K.S. Murthy is the face and voice of one of Bangalore's oldest and iconic landmarks. This place also holds discussions and talks by eminent speakers from India and from professors from different Universities across the globe. These talks are organized in a typical informal baithak format wherein the listeners generally sit on mats on the floor with the speaker seated on a chair or on a divan [cushioned chair]. Anyone can join these discussions or visit the shop.
I came across this interesting piece while trawling the net and am re-posting it here, albeit with some modifications. Read on...
I've heard Select Bookshop described as a Dickensian sort of place. Perhaps it's indicative of my stunted reading habits that the adjective that more immediately springs to my mind is Blytonesque. But then there is something slightly fantastical about its shadowy interiors, whose deepest secrets are presumably known only to the kindly old man behind the counter, with the twinkle in his eye. The man is K.K.S. Murthy, inheritor of the Select legacy from his father and founder - the legendary Mr. K.B.K. Rao, from whose faded black and white photos it is apparent that the twinkle in the eye must run in the family. So also must the habit of abandoning flourishing careers to take to bookselling; Mr. Rao was a successful lawyer before he founded "Select". In turn, Mr. Murthy gave up a career as an aeronautical engineer to take over the business and most recently, Mr. Murthy's son Sanjay joined him, leaving behind his days as an accountant.
Even while he worked his technocrat job, Mr. Murthy spent most of his spare time book hunting wherever his work took him. From Chennai's Moore Market to New York to the street bookshops in France on the banks of the river Seine, his is a life inextricably linked with the books. Every enduring memory of his has something to do with buying books, selling books, or figuring out how to transport sacks full of books across the world. There was one story he told me that wasn't about books, when he found himself in France searching for a particular brand of perfume called Genet Fleuri. He managed to locate the perfumer, but couldn't buy the fragrance due to a complicated tangle of licensing agreements. As he narrated it to me I found myself surprised that finding a perfume would be of such interest to a man whose overriding concern in life was the pursuit of books. But as it turned out it was a story about books after all. Back in India K.B.K. Rao had read about Genet Fleuri in Katherine Mansfield's journals and asked his son to try and find it when he was in France. The perfumer's heart went out to Mr. Murthy when he learnt how and why he had come looking for the perfume. He couldn't sell him any but he gifted him an entire carton of bathing soaps made from the same fragrance. The elder bookseller was thrilled when his son gave him the soaps and he stowed them away, bathing with them for months after and refusing to let anyone else touch them.
Select's clientele, like its collection, is eclectic. You're most likely to bump into students, academics and artists within its small confines. A few are casual browsers; most are raving bibliophiles seeking a fix. Mr. Murthy, an unlikely tambourine man, is only too happy to oblige them, suggesting titles, giving advice on where to look, or just letting them browse undisturbed.
From its early makeshift location in a garage on Museum Road to its still humble but more permanent location in an alley off Brigade Road, Select Bookshop has acquired a quiet fame for its exquisite collection of secondhand, rare and antiquarian books. Four years ago the shop was expanded to include three rooms on the first floor, but the basic working arrangement remains the same. Books are stacked in piles all over the floor, on shelves, under them and behind them. If you're looking for something in particular ask Mr. Murthy, or else you're likely to get distracted by shelves full of mythical monsters, unfaithful husbands and gardening advice.
There is one room upstairs which is kept locked. This is where the rare and antique books are kept, away from the probing, sweaty fingers of the casual browser. There is a particular quietness in this room, which almost seems like a reverential hush intended for the books themselves. The books here are brittle with age, and their pages threaten to snap softly if you're not gentle with them. Many of them are obscure; looking through, I found among other volumes a detailed exposition on the cutlery trade, and a defense of the methods of water diviners. As I was about to give up hope of finding something I would be able to appreciate, I opened a black bound book and felt that unmistakable quickening of the pulse when I realized that it was a first edition of Dom Moraes' autobiographical book My Son's Father.
Unfortunately my attention was soon diverted by another book on the remote island of Tristan da Cunha, and when I turned back I had forgotten where I placed my book. I might have been inconsolable had Mr. Murthy not promised that he'd find it and keep it for me.
Apart from his uncanny knack for sourcing rare secondhand books from across the country, it is Mr. Murthy's personal interest in his customers' requirements that sets Select apart from other secondhand bookshops. He spends hours poring over his shelves to find specific books that have been requested. It's customer service of an impeccably high order.
In the age of Internet research, Select is a comforting place to be. There is something reassuring about the thought that not all the information in the world is available online, and that there are still treasures to be found beyond the reach of Google's tentacles. If you don't need your results in 0.34 seconds, it might just be more interesting to seek Mr. Murthy out.
No. 71, Brigade Road Cross, Brigade Road
Timings: Mon-Sat, 11.00 AM-6.30 PM; Sunday, 11.00 AM-5.00PM
Whether he was in Bangalore or in Boston, the favourite hobby of Mr. K.B.K. Rao, the founder of Select Bookshop, remained browsing through books. His son recollects a touching episode. [Read: When Select Bookshop went to Boston]
To mention a few who frequent here are Yusuf Arakkal, Girish Karnad, Ramachandra Guha, N. Ram, Romila Thapar, Shashi Despande, etc as well as expatriates who religiously visit the bookshop whenever circumstances bring them to Bangalore. Occasional visitors include author Ruskin Bond, who has been coming to the Select since the 1960s. Infact Bond makes it a point to drop in to this bookstore whenever he is in Bangalore. Mr. Murthy also has a correspondence with the author, who lives in Landour near Mussoorie.Bond even wrote: "Booksellers should encourage browsers. Sooner or later most of them will become book buyers. And it was in Select that I became a collector of picture postcards."
On being asked if he was feeling challenged by the big bookshops in Bangalore such as Landmark, Gangarams, Strand and Shankars? His reply was "I am not selling books here and I am not here to do business. Because of our common interest being books, I meet so many people, young and old and from various backgrounds. And it is nice to meet new people, learn new things and see new perspectives. As far as my motive and the big bookshops intention are concerned, we follow totally different schools of ideology or philosophy."One of the unique features of this place is that, any visitor is allowed to browse among the books for as long as you want. There is no one watching or policing you.Mr. Murthy gets the real notion of any person who visits him and if he finds some person 'deserving' of a particular book, monetary consideration is the last thing on his mind. He simply gives away books to some visitors, especially students with insufficient funds just because he saw flair on their faces. Just think who these days would think of helping a not-so-well-known artist and showcase his works and not take a commission on the sale? Well, Mr. Murthy is one such person, who is trying to develop an art gallery for the young artists. He also has a rare collection of paintings and a collector can buy paintings by some of the upcoming talents here, which do not find space in elegant, and spacious art galleries. He certainly is a rare man.
For one who ran a bookshop, Mr. Shanbagh was a man of few words, and could rarely be drawn into a long conversation. Apparently, at the felicitation organized by Ram Guha and Sujatha Kesavan to celebrate 30 years of Premier Book Shop, he answered the fulsome praise of those present in the only way he knew. He handed out copies of the new Rupa edition of Rabindra Rachanabali to all those present!! It was his kind, if rather terse and gruff manner that had turned his shop into an excellent meeting place for people and ideas.
However, the ever-gracious and sprightly Mr. K.K.S. Murthy of the Select Bookshop is quite the opposite.
The shelves of Select Bookshop, now bent under the weight of the history they carry, are full of books on Anthropology, Sociology, History, Essays and Commentaries and a whole range of other books from the colonial era and after. There are books on education, Egyptology, health, art, politics, humour and satire, philosophy and religion, psychic science and psychology, and folklore. There are memoirs and anthologies and old comics. These books spill out from every conceivable corner, and alcoves. Some of the books came out as limited editions back in the day and bear inscriptions listing down the number of the copy. Others have been signed by their authors when they were being presented to eminent persons such as the Governor of State for example.
The bookshop also has newspapers dating as far back as 1900 in English as well as in Kannada. There are books on silverwork, architecture, and those that make one reminisce about the old city of Bangalore. A French book dating back to 1758, and a priced edition of Murder Off Miami complete with old telegrams, radiograms, and handwritten letters are found in this store. One also finds here old maps and lithographs. Even an autographed copy of Tagore's Gitanjali!
The bookshop also has its own publishing banner - Select Books. It has already published non-fictional works such as Time and Eternity, Language of the Self, Treasures of Buddhism, etc. Select Books has also unveiled its own Kannada publication wing.
Just as one begins to wonder how all these books ever found their way into the collection, Mr. Murthy pitches in with a story about the book you might be holding in your hands. The stories have grown with him, stories about how C.R. Rajagopalachari used to borrow books from his father’s personal collection in Kurnool, stories from acquaintances of the likes of Kenneth Anderson, stories to regale and reminisce. He can always be trusted to keep you engaged in a narration of your interest.
If there is a specific book you are looking for, you can leave you name, phone number and the name of the book in a small diary that is maintained at the shop. Mr. Murthy will try and find it for you. Usually, he calls back with the prize find.
While Select specializes in selling old books, it also does brisk business in new books and best sellers. This part of the business is mostly overseen by his son Sanjay. "We sell all kinds of books. Except computer and management ones," says Mr. Murthy with a chuckle.
When people asked his father how he could sustain his shop with only 3-5 customers a day and also support his family, he would reply smiling, "Still I succeeded in educating and marrying my children off with just this business."
However, according to Mr. Murthy, Select's sales are declining probably because people are reading less, contradicting the common assumption that the book business is flourishing.
Let us prove him wrong. What say you?
For further reading:
1. Bangalore's iconic book store
2. Select Bookshop: Grounded By Tonnes Of Tomes
3. Yellow pages that tell old tales
4. Select Book Shop turns 60 today
Photograph: Mr. K.K.S. Murthy with his customers at Select Bookshop. Picture courtesy link.