Mumbai Local

Reading between the times

few takers:SA Shroff (right), the owner of Universal Book Corporation, at his century-old book shop in Mumbai. —Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

A former Maharashtra Governor, who participated in a friendly cricket match decades ago, stepped into the Universal Book Corporation – a tiny book store at Dhobi Talao – to buy a book on the game. His side lost and the next day he returned the copy.

There was a time when this 88-year-old outlet boasted of several such high-end clients, such as Dhirubhai Ambani, Sunil Gavaskar, Kader Khan and a royal from the Baroda family. Today, its owner SA Shroff, who has been running the family business since 1965, has the difficult task of seeing through its imminent closure.

“Our minimum daily sales were of Rs 25,000. The last two years, we have hardly made Rs 5,000 a day. We pay staff salaries from our savings account. The online portals offering high discounts, free delivery, and a thriving piracy market have badly hit sales,” says Mr Shroff. Once their stock of 15,000-odd books is cleared, he plans to rent out or sell the place and call it a day. Like his cousin Sultan Vishram, whose The New & Second Hand Book Shop – a legacy of sorts – closed down a few years ago. Today a glittering trophy store stands in its place.

Turning inside Jambul Wadi, the Royal Book house has put an expiry date of one year for the shop, which has started keeping a few trophies to stay afloat. The prospects are not very encouraging for big stores either. Mr Shroff, who is a member of the booksellers’ association in Mumbai, says their research estimated that Mumbai’s book shops will be wiped out in a decade. “Eventually all have to go.”

Roadside bookstalls, which once stretched along the pavements from Churchgate to Fountain, from the High Court to the Mumbai University gates, have shrunk to small pockets as footfalls have reduced.

“We sold outside the High Court earlier, but in the 2005 drive when the whole stretch was cleared, we moved. Our stall won’t last for more than two years. ‘Pura dhanda barbad hua hai’ [Business has gone bust]. Customers come to bargain after comparing prices online. Five years ago, our daily sale was Rs 20,000, now we can hardly make Rs 3,000 a day. We bank on our coffee table books, which are sold for steep prices online,” says Sachin Roy, who runs his uncle’s stall.

A flurry of iPads, mobiles and e-readers have revolutionised the reading habits of pre- and post-internet generations alike. In their embrace of new technology, readers still crave for the sense of discovery that a bookshop offers. As a literature student at St Xavier’s College back in the 1990s, Arvind Sivakumaran recalls spending blissful hours at the roadside stalls.

“Those days it was about a process of discovery. Once I stumbled upon a copy of ‘Hitchcock’ by François Truffaut. I used to get rare film books. After a long search when you find what you are looking for, your week is made. Educating yourself was not easy. These places meant something. Fountain was a massive resource. Graham Greenes used to just stick out of the shelves. Kindle editions are cheaper, but I don’t know if I can read a full book on it. I don’t see someone under 20 having that problem,” says Mr Sivakumaran.

Several young bookworms too swear by the physical copy for multiple reasons. “People love to be surprised when they find a book they’ve always wanted. More than the charm, it’s much better to have the book in hand. I know that Kindle gives you a precise and accurate figure vis-à-vis how much you’ve read and how many hours you will need to finish the book, but the tactile experience with a hard copy gives a better idea. In fact, I am going to make it a policy to go to a few bookstores before placing an order online,” says Gayatri Viswanath, a former literature student and language teacher. “I like to feel the book in my hand and have a habit of making small notes. Online/e-books strain my eyes. While online portals and bookstores both encourage reading, stores are valuable as they encourage discussions, debates and community interaction, and promote reading. Several low-profile and undiscovered writers get an opportunity to engage the public in their socially, regionally and linguistically relevant work. None of this can be provided by an online portal,” says Jaina Shah. Some like Hormazd Mehta prefer the randomness of display at a bookshop more rewarding than the restricted approach of the Internet that throws up only related searches.

On the other hand, the nostalgic pre-Internet generation is increasingly opening up to digital reading experiences. Dr Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh, HoD, English department, SNDT Women’s University, sees online portals as a ‘great practical asset’ to humanities and social sciences.

“Bookshops are like your local delights, which you look for in cities you travel to. Coming across works you did not know at a shop is an unparalleled joy. The feeling of being surrounded by fellow readers is irreplaceable. How can we not be enticed by a whole street where people are only talking about books! Or be stunned by a five-storey book shelf! Having said that, the electronic medium has made available books which were not available to me 10 years ago. Reading will never stop as the mind continuously seeks out new worlds. Many students use the Internet for referencing works and sometimes you have to persuade even a good student to go to a bookstore. You no longer get students who say they have skipped breakfast to buy books, but that’s a good thing,” Dr Mukherjee-Parikh says.

Old bookshops may not stand the test of time, but as the professor points out, reading will.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:20:42 PM |

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