Updated: Oct 21, 2020
If there's something I miss doing from BP (Before Pandemic) days, it's book shopping. I actually feel nostalgic for it. Wading through the nostalgia made me remember all those glorious bookstores we've had that downed their shutters alongside those that are still holding out. Old Bangaloreans will recognise and remember some of them, for sure.
I discovered Mecca Stores via several borrowed secondhand books. These books carried a stamp with the full address for the shop. 4/2, China Bazaar, Commercial Street Cross. Mecca Stores was on the lane between Dispensary Road and Commercial Street. I remember the bearded proprietor (what a shame that I don't remember his name) with fondness. I was a terribly socially-awkward teenager. Walking into the store, all I wanted was to be left alone with the books for the duration I was there. He seemed to understand that. My memory of Mecca Stores is of the proprietor, sitting behind the small table, looking out at nothing in particular, as though, like me, he too was in another world. It was a while before I ventured to have a conversation, and it was always pleasant. The last time I walked down the lane to Commercial Street, the store was still standing but with its name changed and selling different merchandise.
I was fascinated by the location of Select Book Shop off Brigade Road. I have always preferred going there earlier in the day; late afternoons for some reason leave me feeling a little moody. In '99, I was newly employed and worked not too far from Brigade Road. Select was my source for books. Once I came across a copy of Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street that I was keen on. I checked the price, checked my wallet and put it back when I heard Sanjay's voice, gentle and generous, “You can pay what you can for it.” I'll never forget that.
And of course Premier Book House. In 2000, I'd go there every month on the day after pay day. I would buy two books, an Asterix comic for the collection I was building my nephew and a book for myself. Some years later, I asked Mr Shanbhag to hire me. He lived not far from my parents' house (a matter of great pride for me to call him neighbour) and I would accept payment in books if I could get a ride to the store and back home with him. Mr Shanbhag laughed. The last time I shopped at Premier before it closed, Mr Shanbhag placed some books in front of me and that's how I discovered the author, Ismail Kadare. I miss Premier and the sense of homecoming I felt when I walked in each time.
I made my acquaintance with Strand at their sales and although I enjoyed the store, it was the sale I looked forward to and frequented. One of the treasures I found there was The Big Book Of Jewish Humour, bought for some three hundred rupees. I bought for my dad, and it's a book that never disappoints when we want a good laugh. My favourite from it is this one: Two Jews decided to assassinate Hitler. They decided to wait for him at a particular place he passes by at the same time everyday. On the appointed day and appointed time, they are ready and waiting. But no sign of Hitler. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes pass and still no sign of Hitler. And one of the Jews turns to other and says, "I hope nothing's happened to him." Still cracks me up, this one.
Then, there was Nalanda Book House, discovered in, of all places, the directory of the Overseas Women’s Club of Bangalore. Payment accepted in Rupees, Dollars, Pounds and other currency, the listing had read. I was intrigued. This was ‘99-’00. I found Mr Chakravarthy behind a desk, staring out at the road. His home extended from the bookstore and it was quiet, terribly old-world, and utterly charming. Nalanda had an odd mix of books and I did ask Mr Chakravarthy about how he had put together the collection. He said he bought books that he liked to read, so that if he didn’t sell them, they at least made for good company.
Nalanda was a bit pricey. But it was all those things a good second hand book is remembered for, including Mr Chakravarthy, who as a college student had taken part in the freedom movement, and had stories to tell. When Mr Chakravarthy died, Nalanda was closed. I heard of his passing from another bookseller, Mayi Gowda.
I stumbled upon Mayi Gowda's Blossom when it was still one room in the Brigade Gardens building. I had been doing the thing we did those days, wandering in and out of Brigades and MGs. I was also between jobs and was especially grateful for book discounts. It's been such a joy to see the store grow from a one-room shop to where it's at now. Last year, my son and I had taken to spending a few afternoons there. We'd pick his books first and he'd park himself with a clear view of the aisles I always end up in and read while I looked and looked. We'd eventually emerge with a happy stash of books. (Sometimes we will pop into Bookworm, because it's right there and well, it's hard to turn down the invitation of a bookstore.)
The two of us would then make our way to Koshys, where we would take a table by the window and eat potato smileys, and read our books.
It feels a bit unreal, to imagine an afternoon like that, after what this year has been like. It's what I miss the most. But even in these times, it's been a bookstore that's been an anchor of normalcy. The first thing we ordered end of April when some stores opened, were books from Lightroom. We've been Dunzo-ing books when we are bored, or theres a birthday, or sometime because we need a bit of cheer. Last time I called Aashti to Dunzo some books, ever thoughtful and kind, she offered to courier them to me, because that would be less expensive.
As I write this, I can't help but think that behind every bookstore I've loved, there's a bookseller I cherish. Photograph of the books by Rishab Gawa Koilpillai