Delhi’s oldest bookstores and the pleasures of the text

Delhi’s oldest bookstores and the pleasures of the text

By Keith Armando Gomes | | 1 April, 2017
Bookstores, Bahrisons Booksellers store, Khan Market, Delhi, Anuj Bahri, Faqir Chand & Sons, e-print
Faqir Chand’s bookstore, before it became Faqir Chand & Sons.
While bookstores across the city are going broke and shutting down, there are a handful of old establishments trying to hold their own against market forces, writes Keith A. Gomes.
It is, perhaps, a reaction, when admirers of books criticise electronic modalities of publishing and sales. But, one can’t deny, this reaction is born out of a sense of loyalty to the tradition called print. Electronic print and sellers over the internet, then, begin to appear as unwanted twins who one might like for their appeasing qualities, like being easily accessible or relatively cheaper, yet cannot fully adopt. Given the context of our times, electronic print and online book selling might be the easier road to take for publishers, sellers and readers, but it is within this very context that the charm of a bookstore is further exaggerated in the mind of a book lover — the act of stepping out to identify a good book store, entering the store to realise the awe that settles in when surrounded by nothing but paperbacks and hard covers, the joy of finding an appealing book cover which reads the most exquisite synopsis at the back and, joyously, declaring the conclusion of your expedition with a suppressed howl of triumph. Anuj Bahri, who inherited the easily identifiable Bahrisons Booksellers store (situated at the entrance of Khan Market, Delhi) from his father, in a conversation with Guardian 20, in an endearing yet satirical vein, states, “The internet is a space for the jobless (he likes referring to Indians as velllas). But when you know that you really need something, you go out and buy it.”

You’d be surprised to learn of the bookstores that, quite valiantly, confront the parallel internet book sellers market, by not linking with any website at all for their sales. They are few in number, agreed, but their stories are remarkable, much like the fiction that they stack on their wooden shelves. Balraj Bahri started Bahrisons in the year 1953, when he had to shift to Delhi post India’s partition. “In the unsettling climate of the time, he did a few odd jobs — he worked at a pen store. After that he became a teacher.” Anuj Bahri, as he narrates the tale of his father, continues, “Well, he was the sort of man who wanted to do something with his life. So, he went on to start this store.” Bahrisons is a bookstore that deals in a panoramic variety of contemporary works of fiction, and some important titles under non-fiction. Anuj Bahri has been heading the enterprise since 1979 and has seen generations of readers. The establishment houses over 110 thousand titles, all single copies, while the remaining copies are stacked up in warehouses.

Bahrisons book store at Khan Market, as it looked decades ago.

Generations of readers and buyers also visit a store located a few shops down the same path where Bahrisons is situated. Faqir Chand & Sons, where I found, young and genial, Abhinav Bamhi, has its own long adventure to share. Faqir Chand, who is Abhinav Bamhi’s great-grandfather, started the store in 1951. “He already had a store in Peshawar, which was established in 1931, but had to relocate after the partition. This bookstore happens to be the first store to have started at Khan Market,” shares Abhinav Bamhi. Like Bahrisons, this store is compact, well lit by tubes, and is full to the very brim with books — the columns of books on either side create an isle that is narrow enough for just one person to walk up and down at a time. Their store has a permanent clientele, Abhinav Bamhi informs me, “Just before you stepped in we had an old gentleman who brought in his grandchildren to show them the store, he told them about how he would come here to buy books with his father as a child.” This only adds to the charm of the store. Faqir Chand & Sons also deals in a wide variety of fiction along with specific genres within non-fiction: namely biography, political history, business.

“We’ve had many of them visit for signings. The last we had over was William Dalrymple, he was signing copies of ‘Kohinoor’.”

Books in themselves are a cosmos, which take form once the words are placed on the page. Writing started with the ink being put onto a page, it gradually went onto typewriters (which are used still, by many, — apparently there is a feel to the whole act of using a typewriter while writing), and now we have writers who type works on laptops or even use audio-to-text applications. Does the act of transforming the means of producing a book also have an impact upon the very form of the book, and does it have an unforeseen impact upon the act of writing? But, it is worthy of note, the work which is typed onto a computer is directly associated with its electronic format. The “soft” format of typing is in direct association with the “soft” format of e-print, while maintaining a once removed link with the “hard” format of print. Most authors of today are better off deciding for themselves as to what means to use to write the book, and what means to use to disseminate their book.

There is another consequence to the whole shift — what does one do when one wishes to see their favorite author sign their copy? I mean, it’s oddly funny to imagine your favorite author use a stylus to sign your e-copy of their work, and, that too, over a skype chat. Bookstores help carry on this tradition. Midland bookshop was started in 1958 by Yaseem Mirza Beg, who was the only one to supply books to the Indian Coffee House back 1950s when it was the political and cultural hub for politicians, intellectuals, journalists, musicians and artists. Midland, currently located in South Ex market, is run by Yaseem’s son,  Asad Beg, and he tells about the authors that keep visiting for signing and seeing their books, “We’ve had many of them visit for signings. The last we had over was William Dalrymple, he was signing copies of Kohinoor.” Similar are the cases of Bahrisons and Faqir Chand & Sons.

Midland Book Shop in South Ex.

There is a very interesting point that Anuj Bahri, of Bahrisons, raises in his conversation, “Amazon has been maintaining a strong online presence with its physical books sales and its electronic format sales, but, if anyone has paid attention to their recent activity, you’d learn that they’ve opened five book stores, the first one being in Seattle. Now, why would an online book store do such a thing? Makes you wonder.” And it does make one wonder as to why one of the biggest online book sellers would open five bookstores along with plans for many more in place. Is this a realisation that the traditions of book reading, buying, visiting stores, talks and signings with authors, are all too firmly rooted and indispensible?     

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