My earliest memory of Strand Book Stall is going there as a schoolboy, armed with a gift voucher from my school for having scored the highest for art in Class 5. The voucher, for Rs 7, had to be exchanged only for serious books, as opposed to comics, our spoilsport teachers told us each year. I remember being helpfully guided by an avuncular man who more or less insisted I take a slim hardback book on Rembrandt, published by Ladybird Books.
That man was TN Shanbhag, of course, the owner of the iconic Mumbai bookstore, and he continued to be always warm, always welcoming and always friendly on each visit. And he was always suggesting books one might or should read. A visit on a Saturday afternoon would find the place bustling with customers. The small, compact shop was possibly concentrating the “new book smell” that so entices bibliophiles.
At the billing counter, a discount was always on offer and a done deal was met with a cry from the owner, “Ek wrap karo”. Wrap one up. If one were a frequent visitor or stood long enough in the shop, one would inevitably hear stories from Shanbhag – about Jawaharlal Nehru, APJ Abdul Kalam, Nani Palkhivala and other grandees who would visit the shop. One privately joked that the discount he gave was in fact the price for getting people to repeatedly listen to his stories. As for me, I felt a particular joy when he buttonholed a boring journalist-writer.
After Shanbhag’s death in 2009, the visits were no longer satisfying. A sure sign of a good bookshop’s decay is the persistence of non-selling, dull books, displayed for years on end. The Big Book of Jewish Humour was one such. A PG Wodehouse omnibus of five large paperbacks was another. On February 28, the shop is shutting down. Predictably, the usual suspects are being blamed – online retailers, e-books and such. Eulogies are being written for bookstores.
The news of the death of bookshops anywhere is greatly exaggerated. A visit to a good bookshop is an unmatched experience. No amount of online browsing comes close. A good bookshop surprises you by stocking books you never knew existed but now need. The joy is in the discovery and the serendipity. Lotus Book Shop, Mumbai’s best ever, was one that did this.
The news of Strand’s demise has also got nostalgia buffs lamenting the passing of yet another of the city’s icons. This, unfortunately, is more fake sentimentality than real emotion, smacking of “virtue signalling”. Those who never lamented its decline are mourning its loss. Strand was dead a long time ago, it is the burial on February 28. It’s a wrap. Or as Shanbhag would say, “Ek wrap karo.”