Drop in at A. A. Husain & Co. to revisit the 65-year-old legacy of Hyderabad’s oldest existing bookstore
On the busy Abids Road is a quiet little store that holds a thousand voices – Orhan Pamuk, James Joyce, J.M. Coetzee, Sylvia Plath, Ramchandra Guha, Narendra Luther, Amartya Sen and more – they all find a place at A. A. Husain & Co. The shop itself would be easy to miss if not for the collage of book covers and posters that flank its door. A. A. Husain and Co. has stood at that very spot near Santosh Cinemas for over 70 years. Inside the store, devoid of promotional banners advertising the latest Xbox or a decor that speaks louder than book titles, is the quintessential book store; every inch of its walls lined with books, the floor too encroached by stacks of books.
We sat down with Asif’s great grandfather Abdul Husain or Arastu Yar Jung who had been surgeon and physician to the sixth Nizam, Mahbub Ali Khan. It was his grandfather, Abdul Asghar Husain who had opened the general store to sell imported merchandise from “ties to cufflinks and even aquariums”. It was his son Riazat Husain who turned it into a bookstore in 1949 under the same name.
“My grandfather was an avid reader and also a numismatist and philatelist. He was very popular in the hobby circles during that time and he thought it would be a good idea to open a bookshop,” informs Asif, who took over operations in 1996. Riazat Husain also sold collectors stamps, segregated by country or topic, which were a big hit with customers.
A. A. Husain &Co. remained the only book store in the city for a few years and continues to be the preferred destination for books for many Hyderabadis, something Asif attributes to his father Shoukat Husain’s genial personality. “He had a great way of conversing with people and maintaining relationships, customers would come just because of this relationship,” says Asif.
Till recently, the store was also popular with NRIs who found it cheaper to buy books in India, says Asif. “I remember they would buy books in heaps; the entire Asterix or Tintin series or 20to 30 different titles.” Apart from books, the store also sold greeting cards and post cards. “During Christmas and New Year the store would be so crowded that you’d be lucky to find a place to stand. Customers used to queue up outside to buy greeting cards,” recalls Asif adding that his father also received an award from the then Governor Kumudben Joshi for being the top seller of UNICEF greeting cards. Today, the greeting cards are cordoned off to a dusty corner of the shop but Asif assures us that Indian postcards continue to be popular.
The first books to be imported to the 65-year-old book store were the Ladybird children’s books. The popular series continues to take up an entire shelf on the first floor of the shop which houses the children’s section. Javed Ansari who has worked at the store since the Seventies informs us that the first floor was constructed especially for children’s books a few years after he joined. According to Asif, the section continues to remain quite popular albeit thriving on the sentiments of old patrons of the store. “Customers often bring their kids here and say ‘this is where I bought books from as a child’; they want their children to see and experience books as they did,” says Asif who is well aware of the threat posed to shops like his with the advent of digital publishing and e-commerce sites.
“To be honest,” says Asif, “We are just surviving. Some customers still come here for the personal attention and even place orders with us if the book is not in stock, even though they know they’ll get it faster on Flipkart. By God’s grace, there are people who want to come to a book store to browse, touch and feel the books they are buying.”
* M. F. Hussain who was a friend of Shoukat Husain would visit frequently for a cup of tea. He never left without picking up a few books.
* Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran was a frequent customer. A photograph he took with Shoukat Husain when he visited after his first article was published in National Geographic magazine, hangs in the store.
* When the store sold a record 100 copies of Then came Hazrat Ali by D. F. Karaka in one week, the author personally came down from Mumbai to meet and thank Shoukat Husain.
* Suresh Oberoi, actor and father of Vivek Oberoi owned a medical shop nearby. He was also a frequent customer.
* Other famous visitors include K. P. S. Gill, Dilip Kumar and Sunil Gavaskar