Home > industry > Enter a Cafe on May Day

New Delhi: Books, new and used, aroma of coffee and chattering of people involved in passionate debates—this is the environment you encounter as you enter May Day Bookstore and Café, located in Shadipur in West Delhi. One can buy books, or read them sitting on a bench or lying on the floor, sipping coffee from a pay-what-you-like café counter.

While walking from Shadipur Metro station to “bayasi (82) number,"—the address of the Café—one can eat street food and buy tomatoes at only 5 a kg. All in all its an inexpensive affair, but rich in experience.

On 1 May 2016, the Café completes four years of its existence, having emerged as a popular alternative community space in a city known for its fast pace, rat race and hectic lifestyle.

“May Day Bookstore and Cafe is an oasis in a city which now moves at a sonic pace. It is a place to come, rest, chat with interesting people who are interested in politics, art, books, life. Unlike other cafes, one does not come there to be alone or meet someone you already know. It is a place to meet others, who are also interested in similar things or who might get interested in them," said Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College, Connecticut and chief editor at LeftWord Books, the group that owns the place.

Studio Safdar, an adjacent space and run by the street theatre group Jana Natya Manch, is another attraction. Dotted with posters of Indian Coffee House, a restaurant chain of worker cooperative societies and performances of Jana Natya Manch’s late stalwart Safdar Hashmi, the café conveys a synergy between its varied components.

Speaking on convergence of coffee, drama and books, Sudhanva Deshpande, managing editor at LeftWord Books said, “I run a publishing group and am a theatre activist. Thus, the studio and the bookstore automatically came together. Also, both sectors attract similar audience. Café was the idea of my former history teacher at Ramjas College in Delhi University, Mukul Mangalik."

Mangalik is a historian, also known for his fine coffees in Delhi’s academic and activist circle. His used to make coffee at Sarai in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), near the north campus of Delhi University. He now occasionally serves coffee at May Day Bookstore and Café. “At least on every 1st May, he has been here making coffee for the visitors," said Deshpande.

Earlier, the bookstore sold only new books, though of smaller publishing houses like Navayana, apart from LeftWord. But for the past two years, it has been selling used books at dirt cheap prices. “This has become a blockbuster. People get some old rare titles very cheap," said Deshpande. One can find books like The Making of The Madras Working Class, published in the 1970s. Or a collection of copies of Amrita Shergil’s paintings with brief explanations.

Other books relevant to Indian politics have also become a rage in the last one year. “Govind Pansare’s Who is Shivaji? sold 3,000 copies in a year and is in third print. Prashad’s No Free Left has crossed 1,500-mark and is being printed again," said Deshpande.

The café took on its name in the spirit of its launch day which is observed as International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, or simply May Day, to commemorate the Haymarket Affair of 1886 in Chicago, US when four workers were killed in police firing demanding an 8-hour workday.

True to its promise of a community space, May Day Bookstore and Café engages with its neighbourhood and actively participates in its struggles. When the residents of neighbouring Kathputli Colony, home to around 2,800 families of street artists, were forced to vacate the area in light of demolition drive by the Delhi government, Safdar Studio became a site of resistance. Adult and children alike, staged shows taking their stories to a concerned audience. The café provided space for meetings to build the resistance.

In the scorching heat of Delhi, passers-by like the rickshaw pullers can walk in and fill their water bottles, before exchanging a word or two about heat, their life and the place.

Deshpande and co. organize six to ten events a month, be it a book launch, or a talk on a relevant topic or cultural performances. Their series on science explained many tough scientific subjects to lay people in simple language.

Each event sees a footfall of 60-100 people, which includes some regulars.

“We are not based in South Delhi or a hub of book and art lovers. Bookstores based in areas like Shahpur Jat in South Delhi get customers when people come to shop for other things. But in our case, people come exclusively to our store. It has not been a bed of roses, but we are happy we have been able to sustain and going strong," said Deshpande.

Even though it is a one of its kind place in Delhi, such spaces do exist in other parts of the world.

“In Beirut there is an old communist bar—Abu Elie, but this is a bar. In Caracas, there are Cafe Venezuelas, government run coffee shops that remind me a little of the India Coffee House—but these are also different. May Day is unusual. Its linkage to LeftWord Books and to Studio Safdar anchors it in the world of arts and books, and of course in Left struggles," said Prashad.

Labour Day was celebrated this year too from 1 pm – 8 pm, with old and rare books, some new titles, delicious snacks and of course, coffee.

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