In 1968, Mohammed Hussain Sait and his wife sat on a low wall after a leisurely evening walk down Bangalore’s Church Street. Staring at a building that was being constructed, Sait casually asked his wife what she’d think if he sold magazines and newspapers from the small passage in that building. She nodded. Soon afterwards, the couple started Variety Book House.
The hole-in-the-wall store remained just that until three months ago, when it moved to a new location on Church Street—an 1,800 sq. ft store. It is one—or perhaps the only—store of its size in the country which sells just magazines, both current and old issues. Vintage issues of The New Yorker (Rs 699), Pen World (Rs 600), a magazine about pens, QP (Rs 1,500), the watch magazine, High Times (Rs 600), a magazine dedicated to marijuana, Guitarist (Rs 900), Book Moda (Rs 5,700), the Italian fashion magazine, Sight & Sound (Rs 600), the film magazine, Computer Music (Rs 1,000) and Yoga (Rs 550)—the shelves have an eclectic look.
Book covers: (clockwise from top left) The shuttered, original Variety Book House is a stark contrast to its new, swanky avatar on the right; Yahya Sait at the store; and Snowbell and Sugar, adopted by Yahya Sait. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
At the other end of the same street is a 2,000 sq. ft store, Magazines, started by the family six years ago. It sells—you guessed it—magazines, but it’s also popularly known as “the cat store” because it is home to 10 cats. The original site of the Facebook page, “I love the cats at the magazine store”, is indeed this. A third store in Koramangala is on the cards.
When Sait started Variety, he did double duty, working the night shift at the finishing department of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd for 15 years. Sait’s youngest son, Yahya, 40, narrates his father’s story at the Variety Book Store, sipping on his “20th cup of tea for the day”. He greets his customers with familiarity as they walk into the swank store. “His business made him some great friends and made me some too,” he says. The founder-owner died in 2009 at the age of 85.
For a family that has sold magazines and newspapers for close to 42 years now, Yahya still smiles when asked what makes them tick. “There were times when we introduced a small lending library and even a stationery section, but what has survived is just the magazines,” says Noor Hussain (56), Yahya’s older brother, who has been working at Variety from the time he was in school.
The family began by selling local magazines, but 15 years into the business, Mohammad Hussain diversified into international magazines after a trip to Mumbai, where he chanced upon old foreign magazines going cheap. He contacted agents and asked for supplies of a bunch of labels, including Elle and Vogue, giving Bangaloreans a chance to get their hands on magazines they would otherwise only get to read outside of India. In 2004, on another trip to Mumbai, Yahya and Noor met more agents and returned with 25,000 issues of international magazines. This forced them to keep changing locations till the new, permanent second store Magazines came into being.
“Initially, we thought that we were doing sales only because of my father’s loyal customers, but at the new location, new customers walked in and bought piles of magazines,” says Yahya. He infers Bangaloreans have an insatiable appetite for magazines. “Every time we open a consignment, it’s like a Pandora’s box. We find new titles all the time,” he says, adding that somehow most of them seem to have takers.
Their best-selling category: music magazines, because of the posters and CDs they come with, closely followed by old issues of computer magazines. “But customers surprise us all the time,” he says. A few customers only buy Italian fashion magazines, paying as much as Rs 3,000-4,000.
The two brothers maintain that readers can broadly be categorized as book readers and magazine readers. Magazine lovers are a different breed altogether. So the couple of shelves where the brothers stack some best-sellers and comic books don’t have many takers.
There are more takers, in fact, for Magazines’ feline residents. The cats, the owners suspect, are responsible for drawing in people and turning them into customers.
Yahya’s love for cats began 18 years ago when Minnah, an Indo-Persian cat, strayed into his house. “She became the centre of my life,” he says. In 15 years, Minnah gave birth to around 55 kittens. While Minnah had to be given away, Yahya’s love for cats remained.
“From an advertisement in the newspaper, I impulsively bought a family of five Persian cats, but couldn’t keep them at home,” he says. He went around Bangalore looking for a place to rent just to shelter them. “While I was house hunting, I kept them at the store for one evening. The customers were so taken by them that I decided to keep them (there),” he says.
Magazines now has 10 cats—Persian and Maine Coon.
Some people walk in just to see them. Once, a lady named Laila, who had three Persian cats, came to the store asking if they would keep her cats as she was moving to another city. Yahya accepted gladly.
Laila, now back in the city, often drops in to visit her former pets. “I rarely buy magazines here,” she says, holding her favourite brown Persian.