Mumbai’s booksellers face the digital age

JUNE-2012 – Sajjan Das stood sweltering before mounds of paperbacks and plastic-jacketed bestsellers on a drowsy, a sentinel of vanishing treasures and survivor of a once flourishing tribe of footpath booksellers in Mumbai. A blazing mid-summer sun rippled through Chrysophyllum trees near Flora Fountain onto a few thousand English-language titles heaped on the road, making small multi-colored canyons of books for human browsers to walk through. Das buys and sells an impressive variety of works, from fiction to non-fiction, and new books to old editions printed decades before the word e-mail became part of our vocabulary, when Amazon was a great South American river and not a giant online book retailer, and Kindle meant only the verb to arouse. Das and neighbouring book merchants are struggling remnants of an urban street culture as old as cities and as old as the printed word, but now battling an Internet era where digital options increase for decreasing leisure time. A long row of booksellers without shops once thrived by this busy intersection of roads stretching from Fort leading to the Arabian Sea, and alongside the famous Oval Maidan, famed among for cricket and football. Ten years ago, this book avenue was a favourite hunting territory for bargains and out-of-print editions from authors ranging from Richmal Crompton, Frank Richards, Enid Blyton and P G Wodehouse to Agatha Christie and Leslie Charteris. It is Mumbai’s version of the book market in College Street in Kolkata or the Sunday book bazaar at Daryaganj in Old Delhi and the Moore Market in Chennai before it was burnt down three decades ago. The once bustling tribe has shrunk to about 10 book merchants functioning under venerable trees behind a gray stone statue of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), the “Grand Old Man of India” and one of the pioneers in the fight against colonial rule. Das and colleagues are fighting to make a living under perhaps the same trees that were saplings when Naoroji was alive. “Business is down by 50% these days,” he says, “but we still have a faithful clientele for rare and antique books, out-of-print editions, as well as for management, technical and other non-fiction categories.” It’s a crossroads in time for book merchants making a livelihood out of a tradition born in 1471 AD, when the first book to be printed in the English language was said to be The Recuyell of the Histories of Troy, translated by William Caxton from Jean de Vignay’ s original in French. Sale of e-books overtook sales of paper books for the first time in the United States last year. Major book stores chain in India such as Oxford, Crosswords and Landmark are reinventing themselves to survive. Like others of its kind, the Oxford book shop near KC College in Mumbai includes a small tea lounge with nearly a hundred choices of tea, including Chinese “gun powder”; and patrons could read books for free lolling on cushioned stools, in air-conditioned comfort and with soft music as backdrop. Alongside book shelves were glass counters selling DVDs, music CDs, coffee mugs, Parker and Sheaffer pens, t-shirts and even 18th-century clocks. No such options exist for roadside book merchants like Sajjan Das. They can only continue to also serve as valuable conduits, preservers or givers of new life to forgotten old books from households and dusty trunks. “Sometimes, after a book collector dies, his son or family sells his books, and we get the stock that interests other book collectors,” says Das. A decade into the future, in 2022, it’s likely be a moot thought that paper books, leave alone roadside booksellers, will have become as uncommon a daily sighting as ink bottles for fo untain pens. Will a parent in 2072 have to explain to a child that people once read books made out of paper? For now, folk continue browsing through books spread out like a roadside feast, and never quite know what can be found in this paper banquet. One of Das’ customers unearthed a book with a hand-written note from Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel laureate for literature in 1913 and was one of India’s more revered names in poetry and arts. A few customers, including two teenagers, ask Das for specific titles. But there is not quite a rush be-fitting one of the most tourist-frequented regions of Mumbai. Located just a few minutes walking distance from Das’ book collection are the Marine Drive promenande, the Gateway of India, the Mumbai museum, the Jehangir Art Gallery and the Colaba shopping district. Das, in his mid-thirties, says he dropped out of school. However, he can pick out a title from fiction, management, computers, history and other categories – all from a collection representing days when a notebook wasn’t a type of laptop. “In earlier years, students used to come here often to get material for their school projects,” says Das. “They used to buy old National Geographic magazines and so on. Now they get all their information from the Internet.” In fact, stacks of National Geographic past issues, once a standard sight in these street side bookshops, were not to be seen this May day. Likewise, familiar piles of popular comics seem to have lessened or disappeared from these roadside book havens. Barely four Asterix and Tintin comic volumes were visible, while dozens were easily found in stacks 10 years ago. This old Mumbai avenue of comics and paperbacks was also a thriving lair of book pirates, as Asia Times Online reported eight years ago (see India’s bootlegging book bandits April 23, 2004). But Das claims piracy has been abolished in this day and age. “We don’t keep pirated books anymore,” he insists. “There’s not much of a difference in margin of profit, and these pirated books have many misprints.” A dubious looking Harry Potter paperback stared up from near him, whose sale proceeds will not look likely be adding to J K Rowling’s billions. But then Das and co looked relaxed sipping their 4 pm tea, not quite keeping a weather eye open for the swooping municipal van confiscating unlawful merchandise. Either Das was truthful about book piracy having disappeared or diminished, or the municipality was busy with other more pressing engagements. “Children nowadays also buy comic books here, but times are changing,” says Lalith, a neighboring vendor. “Non-fiction books sell more, and old favourites like William are hard to come by, as are hard-bound editions or those with gold-engraved titles.” Lalith, like many others of this street side book keeper tribe, has a strong memory. He says he remembered me enquiring years ago for out-of-print Billy Bunter books by Frank Richards. I had given him a contact number, as is procedure, for an alert if any wanted book arrived. “I have not received a Bunter book for quite some time,” he said, and listened quietly as I told him that the original Richards books, appearing in the weekly Magnet magazine (1908-1940), are now freely available from a website uploaded by fans. But these street-side book merchants, can sometimes offer what the Internet and eBay may not always provide. That afternoon, I saw a 1956 paperback of Lord Charnwood’s critically acclaimed biography of Abraham Lincoln, from New York’s Pocket Books publishers, marked for 55 rupees (about US$1). Amazon was offering a 1998 edition for $14.73. The original price rubber-stamped on the inside page of the old paperback was 0.80 paise in 1956, a sum not nearly sufficient to buy a small glass of roadside tea in 2012. Archival black-and-white photographs of Mumbai circa 1956 shows the car park around the Flora Fountain opposite a tram station. Where are they now, those people of over 50 summers ago who travelled those trams and trekked along the same road on which I stood talking to the book merchants? Are they living happily in a ripened old age, or have they been reborn in a happy plane of existence, with or without books? Did they remotely imagine the incredible modern day marvel called the Internet offering instant access to millions of books, words, images, sounds and live pictures across continents and oceans? Evolving technology can enable carrying dozens of books in a small hand-held gadget, or even change fonts to eye-friendly sizes. But technology as yet lacks the little sensory touch that makes memories, like that unmistakable fragrance of browning paper of a vintage book – a signature of nature as timeless and unforgettable like the first rain drops in summer. Das instantly responds when asked if he thinks his roadside book business will be around after 10 years, and if he will need to look for another job. “Whether there is the Internet or not, books will always be there,” he says, but a question is whether they will be made of paper, or be 3D hologram projections of words in space. Source: www.atimes.com

Thursday, February 28, 2013
General news