As with most cities, the small, independent bookstore is a rarity in Mumbai. Sanctuaries where you lose yourself, find new ways to dream and find new sources of inspiration. Don’t get me wrong, anybody who helps spread the word is doing noble work. But no multi-level, air-conditioned store can beat the small ones, meant strictly for the hardcore variety of book lovers.
Jamalbhai Ratansi was one such man. A century ago, he ran a business in the raddi trade and decided to start a shop. Along with old newspapers, he also frequently bought bundles of discarded books by weight. So, he decided to start selling them piecemeal, at prices way below the original cost, but still a tidy markup from what he paid for them.
Thus was born the New and Secondhand Bookshop on Kalbadevi Road, near what is now the Metro junction, a Mumbai institution and landmark. In 1917, it moved to its current location, just across the street from the now-demolished building that was its previous home.
Jamalbhai has since departed for the reading room in the sky, but N&S is still very much here, run by Sultan Vishram, Jamalbhai’s grandson and the current proprietor. Over the years, N&S has had a long string of famous customers. Sultanbhai tells me that B.R. Ambedkar, R.K. Narayan, Manohar Malgaonkar, Mulk Raj Anand, P.L. Deshpande and Osho Rajneesh bought books from the shop.
Trawling through the shop’s many overcrowded aisles requires fortitude and flexibility of thinking. While I failed to locate the book I wanted—Dickens’ Bleak House—I did procure The Dog Owner’s Question and Answer Book by one Don Harper; a very old Penguin hardback of Flowers for the Judge by mystery writer Marjery Allingham and Three by Tey , a compendium of Josephine Tey books that contains two of the best suspense novels of all time, Brat Farrar and Miss Pym Disposes .
The “New” in the shop’s name is technically accurate. They do stock new titles on certain subjects such as interior decoration and art—but the tight margins in that trade make it an unattractive business proposition, so they make up less than 10% of the inventory. But the musty smell of old books dominates. The very-rare finds are stored under lock and key. But out there in the open is the gamut, from a 1955 Encyclopaedia Britannica set and Shaw’s Complete Prefaces to elderly pulp paperbacks and mildly bruised coffee-table books.
Even with bookstore giants spreading their shelves throughout Mumbai, N&S is the only shop of its kind and, unfortunately, there soon might be none. “The market for rare second-hand books is shrinking,” Sultanbhai tells me. The books are no more than junk till somebody looks at them and finds value in them. “These rare books are my family’s life. My grandfather always used to say, ‘If you can hold it together with staples, we’ll sell it.’”
Sultanbhai continues pointing to a black and white photograph on the wall, partially hidden behind a pile of books and a flickering tube light.
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