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Saturday, April 08, 2006


Bangalore's near-legendary Premier bookstore faces closure. Book-lovers are distraught.

December 21, 1971. That's when a 600-sq-ft bookstore sprang to life on a little street connecting M.G. Road and Church Street, two of Bangalore's favourite hangouts. In the 35 years since, Premier Bookshop has become one of the cornerstones of the city's intellectual life.

That's as much for the eclectic quality of its floor-to-ceiling stocks, as for the charm and insights of its hands-on proprietor, T.S. Shanbhag. In late March, Bangaloreans who haunt Premier woke up to a rude shock — to hear that the shop was likely to close down when its lease runs out at the end of April 2006.

At Koshy's restaurant on nearby St. Mark's Road and at Barista's on M.G. Road, Premier now crops up regularly in conversations. Some speak of a Save Premier campaign, others of a dharna. Historian-columnist Ramachandra Guha observes, "The cultural life of Bangalore will be seriously impoverished if Premier closes. Unlike Delhi, this city has no good public libraries. Shanbhag's such a laidback, likeable person, who's not interested in PR or the media... I'd rate Premier the best bookshop in India."

What made the Premier experience special to the 1970s' generation? Without the pervasive presence of the TV, the video and the Internet, books were their major source of information and entertainment. Its three-deep stock, which expanded vertically from floor to ceiling, spans Amartya Sen, iconic Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Helen Fielding, Bertrand Russell, Buckminster Fuller to Satyajit Ray, and every possible volume in between. Today, Shanbhag or his staff can extricate a desired book — whether philosophy, history or literature — without the whole collapsing on someone.

Premier's clientele browse through it with passion. Amidst often boisterous reunions by the cookery titles or the self-help stacks, they circulate in single-file, either clockwise or in the opposite direction. Some tryst near the teetering Picador stand, en route to matrimony. Mothers, as they dash out for emergency provisions, have been known to trust their children to the piles of Tintin or Roald Dahl.

In short, Premier has been a second home to a whole generation. En route, some of its regulars grew ambitious enough to produce books of their own. To these fledgling authors, it mattered how Shanbhag displayed their titles.

Premier, then, unlike the mega mall stores that stock Lindt bars and Swarovski crystal, Montblanc writing tools and DVDs, besides books, is a repository of Bangalorean memories. And of unresolved mysteries. How does Shanbhag pick out the right book from the maze around him without a computer in sight? Why is the credit card machine such a recent addition at Premier?

A reluctant interviewee, Shanbhag offers a glimpse into how his book retrieval system works. "I like to display and arrange my stocks myself, so that I know where each book is. I come in early to do this," he confesses.

The only other Indian bookstore to match its feel is probably Nalini Chettur's extra-compact Giggles at Chennai's Taj Connemara Hotel. Like her personal touch with Neruda or Primo Levi, Thomas Friedman or the Google story, Shanbhag knows his books.

Bestselling author Anita Nair notes, "Often, I'd go to Premier and find a book that beckoned out of the blue, one I had no idea about. It's a shop for those who love books, not those who acquire them. And Shanbhag holds the key to the order within the chaos. He keeps track of different editions, varied publishers, all without a computer. Most upmarket stores can't do this."

Shanbhag, a reticent man with a sudden laugh, enjoys finding a perfect match between mind and matter. He still scribbles a bill by hand, offers a generous discount, then pops your treasure into a paper bag. He has been known for his credit to students or young professionals in dire straits.

Born into a primarily agricultural community in south Kanara, Shanbhag was initiated into the trade during the decade he spent at his uncle's Strand Book Stall in Mumbai. The branch they opened opposite the Bangalore museum closed within three years.

"That's when my uncle suggested that I should start my own shop," he says. "I had only a limited amount of money. We didn't have many books in stock. The banks wouldn't give me a loan without collateral. The rent off Church Street was Rs 900 at that time... "

Laughing, Shanbhag adds, "The idea was to be a model bookseller. As people came in, I could tell them whether a book was there or not. I felt bookshops should not just be about keeping books. The human equation is important in any business."

Bangalore's response to the recent turn in Premier's life reflects this. An old customer, waiting for Shanbag to open the shop one March morning, has offered him storage space on Nandidurg Road, or store space in Indiranagar.

Moved, Shanbhag narrates, "Another client spoke of his friend, a philanthropist, who would probably give me a similar space, as long as I keep a section on religious books. We've always had that, anyway."

What else distinguishes Premier? The fact that you are allowed to browse your fill for hours, with help offered only when you seek it. Or Shanbhag's proffered advice on which book to avoid for a friend's birthday because he/ she already has a copy. Or even the way he directs customers to other outlets for titles he does not stock.

Besides, there are no CCTVs keeping an eye on customers. Nor are shoppers with large bags made unwelcome.

Does Shanbhag recall a book he holds dear? "Maybe Albert Camus's The Outsider. It gives you such a great insight into life," he responds.

As Indian book sales soar beyond the approximately Rs 1 crore that is Shanbhag's annual turnover, loyalists still nurse a genuine hope. That a miracle out of the blue will happen. So that we can say to our friends once more, "Let's meet at Premier."

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