The death of a bookstore

9
89

Here is a bad news from Delhi. No, we are not expecting a military coup, but it’s still grim. New Book Depot, the legendary bookshop in the colonial-era Connaught Place known for its vast collection of classics as well as for its charming owner, died on January 6, 2012, aged 87. “I shut the bookshop today,” Rakesh Chandra, the owner, told me on phone the same evening. “There were ongoing court cases with the landlord. I have surrendered the space back to him. It was all of a sudden.”
Every morning Chandra himself dusted the bookshelves. A little temperamental, he occasionally got into tiffs with customers who showed “disrespect” to his books by turning the pages too violently. On December 1, 1946, Chandra’s lawyer father, Kuldip, bought the bookstore from a French couple, who had started it in 1925. Chandra joined his father in 1976. Chandra’s college-going son Uddhav started sitting in the shop only a few months ago.
In the rapidly-changing Connaught Place where most landmark shops were shutting down one by one, giving way to chain stores, New Book Depot retained its old-world charm of low-hanging fans, high ceiling, rosewood shelves and rickety wooden stairs. “Against the pressure to make the layout what is called sleeker and shinier, I have preserved the old look with zeal,” Chandra once told me. New Book Depot had Nietzsche, Rabelais, John Ruskin, Li Po, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Jean-Paul Sartre. For balance, there were all the Ian Flemings.
The day later after the shop closed, Bhaskar Singh, a book-lover, wrote to me, saying, “On 6th January, I dropped by at Connaught Place on way back home by the Metro. I was shell-shocked to see the shop closed and a small notice proclaiming that this British-era bookshop has downed its shutters forever. It was all very sudden…I had bought a Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I had not seen it anywhere else. Felt very sad to see yet another stand-alone bookshop close down. The Bookworm near Plaza theatre was the first casualty. Good bye, dear New Book Depot, I will miss you sorely.”
Oh yes, the Bookworm! A 31-year-old landmark at Connaught Place’s B Block that has been visited by booklovers like Satyajit Ray, it closed in 2008. The owner, Anil Arora, a Partition refugee, blamed it on the declining business caused by the rise of bookstore chains and cheaply priced pirated books in the city. The Bookworm was special. A bookstore’s persona is not created by its professionalism alone. An entire set of intangible something that cannot be defined but which is an absolute must in making up the romance of a place is needed. The Bookworm had that mood. Then there were the 11 bookshop assistants, so nice that they never embarrassed any regular by asking for payments of books purchased in times past. (Ask me!)
“We have only four real bookshops in Delhi,” Chandra of the freshly-dead New Book Depot told me two years ago. “Bahrisons Booksellers in Khan Market, The Book Shop in Jor Bagh, Fact & Fiction in Basant Lok and mine.”
These are all my favorite bookstores, too. Fact & Fiction is Delhi’s most eclectic bookstore; its owner Ajit Vikram Singh is the city’s most eccentric bookseller. On entering, I never dare bothering him. He is either browsing on his laptop or reading The New York Review of Books. In the latest issue of The Book Review, a monthly magazine published from Delhi, which I picked yesterday from Bahrsions Booksellers, Singh wrote a column, saying, “My bookstore is for people who love and respect books. I love to play blues and classic 60s and 70s rock in the store and patrons have come to identify the shop with music and vice a versa. If for some reason the music is off, customers now demand it for the complete Fact & Fiction experience. Each day I open the store thinking it’s the first day of the rest of my bookselling life.”
I have a few friends who like Singh’s bookstore, but not him. “Most of my differences happen with customers due to their ill treatment of books,” Singh told me. “A bookshop requires a certain amount of sanctity and sometimes I have people rushing in with dripping ice cream cones.”
Keep it between us, but I think the survival of Fact & Fiction seems as shaky as President Zardari’s position in Pakistan. Delhi is seeing the invasion of big bookstore chains and of companies that sell books on the internet. It’s universally agreed that the capital’s small independent bookstores are on the death bed.
On its last day, the shelves in New Book Depot were empty. Chandra told me, “The shop stayed for 65 years with the family.”
But all sob stories must have a hopeful ending. A notice at the shop’s door said, “We are leaving. We don’t know for where but we will come back with better books and a bigger space.”

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Yes over here it's Waterstone's (or should I say Waterstones) and the great dead hand of Amazon. What really worries me though is the move to electronic forms of books. Where is the fun looking to buy these? Will we be sold the books we deserve, i.e. the next book by the last author we bought or the book which is most similar to the last one? The great world where we get an e-mail from some corporation saying "If you liked that one you will love this one" is not one I look forward to.

  2. i feel you, fellow bibliophile. lahore's own mall road had such lovely book stores, now mostly gone or their glory lost. even some of lahore's footpaths used to turn into book shops but no more *sigh*

    • Footpath bookshops are still there. They usually come into being on sundays, besides the road from Urdu Bazar to Mall road via Anar kali has fottpath bookshops open everyday. Last remnants though…

  3. very very touching mayank. even dad likes it and the gesture alot. but please be in touch with us on our new website page99.in. we will reopen as you already quoted our flyer and we will be better. till then we hope to serve everyone in anyway we can to get any book they want.
    mr paul johnston, what you said may be true but it is progress and we will keep what you said in mind while trying to give a personal touch to our site. if anyone has any suggestions please leave them at the site. we will surely do our best

    thanks again mayank.
    best wishes
    uddhav

  4. very very touching mayank. even dad likes it and the gesture alot. but please be in touch with us on our new website page99.in. we will reopen as you already quoted our flyer and we will be better. till then we hope to serve everyone in anyway we can to get any book they want.
    mr paul johnston, what you said may be true but it is progress and we will keep what you said in mind while trying to give a personal touch to our site. if anyone has any suggestions please leave them at the site. we will surely do our best to incorporate as many things as we possibly can.

    thanks again mayank.
    best wishes
    uddhav

  5. Hahaha. The army coup thing that you mentioned was your twisted sarcasm. You should have mentioned something like Hindus killing Muslims or the high-caste idiots killing the low-caste poor people.

    • You stupid fool. You are talking about illitrate portion of India.. which also disappearing with economic progress. In your country Muslim kills muslim ?
      Shia Kill Sunni, Sunni Kills Shia, Sunni Kiss Ahmedi Muslims, Muslim Kills Christians, hows that ?
      You are a part of 90% Pakistanis called Parha Likha Jahil..

  6. You call yourself "A Pakistani" but in fact are a typical Indian "Dehati". India's progress is all media hype. More minorities get killed by Hindus in India than any other place in the world. In addition to killing the Muslims, Hindus merciless persecute and kill dalits and Christians. Christians nuns have been raped by Hindus. Every other day, some foreign tourist is either killed or raped by Hindus. It's in the blood of the Hindus to kill the minorities. Hindus did it to Buddhists in the past until the Muslims captured the sub-continent and stopped it.

Comments are closed.