Sunday, March 26, 2006

Where browsing is a contact sport

Where browsing is a contact sport
Deccan Herald

Premier is on the verge of closing down. A part of Bangalore will die when that happens; a part of me too. Many Bangaloreans will feel that way, for like Lalbagh and Cubbon Park, Premier has been a part of our growing-up years

In the 1970s, I bought Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness at the Premier Bookshop. Setting aside for the moment the question of why a schoolboy might want to read such an inaccessible book, let us move to the present. Last year, T S Shanbhag, the proprietor, pulled out a book from under a pile and asked if I wanted this recent edition. It was Being and Nothingness, and I was startled he should remember. “Actually, I haven’t read the last one I bought here,” I managed to mumble while he broke into his familiar hearty laugh.

Years later, when I was working in Delhi and was in Bangalore for a day, my editor who wanted to get in touch with me told a colleague, “Go look for him in that bookshop, he’ll be there.” I was.

Soon the bookshop itself will no longer be there: Premier is on the verge of closing down. A part of Bangalore will die when that happens; a part of me too. Many Bangaloreans will feel that way, for like Lalbagh and Cubbon Park, Premier has been a part of our growing-up years.

As a city grows, pragmatism overtakes romance. The owners of the building that now houses Premier want to modernise and make more out of their golden goose than the traditional single egg per day. Premier will be mourned by book-lovers, but what comes in its place will probably be welcomed by younger, more aggressive people who work hard at being young and aggressive, and have no time for biographies and poetry.

The little bookshop around the corner is unlikely to make way for a ruthless large bookshop here. More likely it will stand aside for a pub or a mall or something that screams ‘modernity’.

Even in the old Bangalore which stood out for its hospitality, grace and charm, Shanbhag was unique. He was personally acquainted with all his customers, and all his books. He encouraged the browser, although in his shop, browsing was a contact sport.

Over the years, informal rules had to be observed. You could, of course, spot your own favourite, but it was best to leave the actual pulling out of the book from the pile either to Shanbhag or one of his assistants to whom he was constantly reeling out names, positions, directions, and occasional anecdotes.

The shop hasn’t changed in 35 years, and neither has its proprietor. Those who knew him with a full head of hair are long gone.

Laissez faire policy
The last thing one wants to hear in a bookshop is, “Can I help you sir?” The bookshops that existed in the 1970s and 80s were full of bored salesmen who asked that question hoping you would stomp out in anger. I am convinced the way new places now leave you alone was inspired by Premier’s laissez faire policy.

Regular visitors tend to walk around in a pattern. In three decades I don’t think I once changed it, beginning with a quick glance at the latest arrivals near the door, a measured look at the science and art sections and then an about turn to take on the tables in the centre of the room. This means an anti-clockwise movement around the shop.

My friend Ramachandra Guha prefers the opposite, walking clockwise and finishing with the new arrivals. There are only two routes, and if you hope to avoid someone it can be easily managed; Shanbhag will help you, unless he is in one of his wicked moods in which case he will contrive to bring you face-to-face with him. The politics of bookshop browsing can be very interesting.

Through all this, Shanbhag plays the jolly host, introducing customers to one another, getting them to discuss a recent event or bringing all arguments to a close with a sudden faraway look in his eyes. And those phenomenal discounts! Even if all other reasons, the warmth, the friendship, the chance to meet the thinkers and doers of Bangalore didn’t exist, the discounts alone would have made any visit to Premier worthwhile. If Premier disappears, it will be in keeping with the changing face of Bangalore. If it was a question of money alone, I am sure some 50 or a hundred of the loyals could be persuaded to keep it afloat with regular contributions.

Some monuments fall victim to neglect; others fall victim to progress. Premier’s location on Church Street, once its strength is now its handicap as it falls prey to ‘progress’.


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