Kolkata’s oldest bookshop to turn part of premises into free library

Though there is a sharp rise in customers from rural areas, it is not always easy for them to afford books, the library will be especially in help to them, says the managing director of Dasgupta and Co.

July 13, 2023 10:21 am | Updated July 14, 2023 08:36 am IST - Kolkata

Part of Dasgupta and Co. that’s being converted into a free library. 

Part of Dasgupta and Co. that’s being converted into a free library.  | Photo Credit: Bishwanath Ghosh

What can be considered as Kolkata’s oldest existing bookshop — set up in 1886 on College Street — is set to convert a part of its premises into a free library mainly for the benefit of students who cannot afford books.

“What I’ve noticed is that in recent years, education has spread to the mofussil and there is a sharp rise in the number of customers from rural areas. Even though the trend is very heartening, it is not always easy for them to afford books. Our library will be particularly of help to them,” said Arabinda Dasgupta, 71, managing director of Dasgupta and Co., which on July 1 was accorded Grade IIA heritage status by the authorities.

The library will be located on the second floor of the shop — accessible by two near-vertical ancient staircases, one straight wooden and another spiral made of metal — which once served as the accounts section and tiffin room. With transactions going online, the accounts department became redundant and the space it occupied, almost 2,000 sq ft, was gathering dust.

Aurobinda Dasgupta, the owner of Dasgupta and Co. 

Aurobinda Dasgupta, the owner of Dasgupta and Co.  | Photo Credit: Bishwanath Ghosh

“We should be able to open the library before Durga Puja. We will begin with 10,000 titles. It will be open on all working days from noon to 6 p.m. Absolutely free of cost. We will also have an archival centre. We have plenty of records — much of it was destroyed in a fire in 2004, whatever we could retrieve will now be open to public,” said Mr. Dasgupta.

The Dasgupta and Co. library, he said, would lay particular emphasis on translations — English to Bangla and vice-versa. “There are many Bengali-medium students who are bright but who lose out because of poor command of English. At the same time, there are many Bengali students who are proficient in English but are unable to read or write Bangla. I want both to benefit,” said the proprietor, an avid reader himself.

According to him, the shop, which also has an impressive collection of literary works apart from academic titles, attracts about 400 customers a day, and as far as literature is concerned, Rabindranath Tagore remains the biggest draw followed by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Ashapurna Devi. “Among contemporary writers, Sirshendu and Samaresh Majumdar remain highly popular. But of late I notice wonderful writers on Facebook, such as Roshenara Khan, Dipankar Dasgupta, Ismat Rizwana — we are also publishers and we would be only too happy to publish them,” Mr. Dasgupta said.

The shop was opened in 1886 by his ancestor Girish Chandra Dasgupta, who hailed from Kaliagram — a village considered at the time to be more literate than others—in Jessore, now in Bangladesh. At the time, College Street was already home to about a dozen prestigious institutions.

“We are the only bookshop from that time whose ownership hasn’t changed. It remains with the same family. We have survived two World Wars, we have seen the Independence movement, and we have lived through the Naxal movement — College Street was a hotbed of that movement for three to four years. We will also survive Amazon. If a particular book is not available, a traditional bookshop can suggest alternative titles — something Amazon can’t,” Mr. Dasgupta said.

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