Among The Plebeian Booksellers Of Delhi, These Five Are A Class Apart

We profile exceptional and highly competent set of employees who navigate the realm of books with ease
Among The Plebeian Booksellers Of Delhi, These Five Are A Class Apart

In a world that is becoming virtual, where one can have books delivered to one’s doorstep and giants like Amazon are encroaching on traditional territory, bookshops are finding it hard to survive. In 2015 Fact & Fiction, an eclectic bookshop in South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar market, closed its doors forever. The small bookshop was first established in Delhi more than 30 years ago. Same year, Spell & Bound Bookshop and Timeless Art Book studio in South Delhi too shut shops.

“Today’s generation is a generation of browsers not readers,” says Jairam Ramesh, author and former Minister of State at the Ministry of Environment and Forests. However, despite the threat, a small group of bookstores with an intensely loyal customer base are thriving. Perhaps a part of their success can be attributed to an exceptional and highly competent set of employees who navigate the realm of books with ease. Over the course of a week, we visited five bookstores in various parts of the city to discover how this workforce enhances the reading experience.

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Bahrisons Bookstore

As we walk into Khan market, the first thing that jumps out at us is a large wooden board. The sun glints off the metallic text: Bahrisons Booksellers.

The store was established in 1953 in the then newly constructed Khan Market. Having grown from a tiny space, the shop now encompasses 800 sq. feet and has become a household name in Delhi. The smiling Nepali guard opens the door and we’re ushered into a world of books. Mithilesh Singh, a college dropout from Bihar, has been the floor manager at Bahrisons for the past 17 years. He is a familiar name for book lovers across the city. “Mithilesh is a genius,” says William Dalrymple, a sentiment shared by the academicians and politicians who frequent Bahrisons.

We, like everyone else, are here to witness his genius.

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As we wait for Mithilesh ji, we look around the store. A wall between two bookshelves is covered with what seems to be Bahrisons’ recommendations. There is a list of Pulitzer Prize winners and just below it, the Man Booker International Long List of 2017. The guard notices us looking at copies of Indira Gandhi as a Naturalist stacked by the door. “Oh this gentleman used to come here a lot,” he says referring to the author Jairam Ramesh.

Our wait is soon over and Mithilesh ji walks over to talk to us. A short dark man with a thin mustache, he smiles at us shyly. When we ask him to tell us about himself, he points to a laminated article on the wall. “You can get your information from there” he says humbly. The article in question is a LiveMint profile that describe his life and achievements. But on pressing him, he opens up. “I had worked at another bookstore in Khan Market for a year before coming here”. He tells us that the owner of Times Book Library had been a Madam and her employees were mostly ladies. “I had to be a helper the whole time and earn money. So it was a dead end job. No progressive work. I’m a hardworking man and I wanted the opportunity to do something. So I came here.”

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Even the owner, Anuj Bahri, has only praise for Mithilesh ji. He tells us that in 17 years, he has never had a single complaint about him. “He worked as a peon earlier but he told me he wants to be a sales boy. He said I will never let you down and in return I told him that I would see to it that he never suffers for money. And we’ve stuck to our deal.”

When we ask Mr. Bahri how he hires his staff he tells us his criterion is very simple. “The more illiterate they are, the better they understand books.” He goes on to tell us that a tenth pass has three times the curiosity level of a graduate. Where a graduate would only read well-reviewed books, someone less educated would be excited about everything. He would read everything.

Mr. Bahri’s philosophy seems odd but it seems to work. Even a short conversation with Mithilesh ji is enough to discern the depth and breadth of his knowledge. “Mithilesh is an institution. It’s remarkable how he can pick out a book from anywhere”, says Jairam Ramesh, whose association with Barisons goes back three decades.

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Apart from helping customers Mithilesh ji also plays a role in curating the collection of books. He reveals that in the beginning, Mr. Bahri ordered the books. Every Saturday andSunday, Mr. Bahri would get copies of all the newspapers and magazines and make his employees read the reviews. Now, after years of experience, Mithilesh ji orders books himself based on two factors: reviews and demand. He tells us that commercial books is something they have to keep due to customer demand but their main focus is niche, high end non fiction.  

Over the years Mr. Bahri and Mithilesh ji have developed a loyal customer base. They have a collage of customers whose likes and dislikes they know intimately. For instance, Mithilesh ji would instinctively know which new release to set aside for Dr Srinath Raghavan, author and Senior Fellow at CPR. “Mithilesh is a one man catalogue! Never understood how he knew so much about books relating to anyone’s interests,” says Dr. Raghavan.

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As soon as he’s done talking to us, Mithilesh ji is back to work. Once again he’s busy walking the aisles of Bahrisons, looking for people to help and suggesting titles to interested customers.

The Book Shop

Nestled at the end of a quiet road in Jor Bagh Market, a short walk away from the famous Lodhi Gardens, is The Book Shop. Opened in the 1970’s by the late Kanwarjeet Singh Dhingra and his wife Nini The Book Shop is a small, quaint space that still retains all the charm of an old-world bookstore.

Inside, at the far end of a well-lit room, with bookshelves running along both walls sits a girl in her twenties. Mahika Chaturvedi, a third year student of history at Gargi College is the store’s main employee. She helps Nini Singh and her partner Sonal Narain manage the store and help customers.

Mahika looks up from her book as we walk in, more than willing to assist us.

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She tells us that her love for books prompted her to take up this position, “In my interview for this job, I mostly just talked about books. For a job like this you really need to know your stuff, you need to love books.” For this tiny independent bookstore that specializes in literature and shies away from more commercial titles, an employee who loves to read fits right in. “This place has a huge legacy around it; if you don’t know books, how are you going to tell someone what to read?” she asks.

Mahika and Ms. Narain read as widely as possible to decide what to order. In addition to looking at long lists and short lists, they also browse through a plethora of reviews. While some obligatory best sellers can be found on the shelves, most of the books here are by distinguished authors. We are told that between them, the three women have read most of the books in the shop. “If you enter a space and there are no commercial books, then you have no choice but to read good books” Mahika says with a twinkle in her eye.

The shop is carefully curated and arranged. Mahika points out a wall of books behind the main desk. “Those are The Book Shop’s recommendations; books we love. We keep switching them around.” When she first joined, Mahika spent two weeks memorizing where everything was kept. And from what we can see, it’s obvious that the training has paid off. When we ask her for a book by Ishiguro, she answers almost automatically. “Never Let Me Go right? It’s on the row to your left, next to a fat Hitchens book.”

Completing 47 years in 2107, The Book Shop has a regular and loyal customer base. “The books editor of a prominent Magazine comes here quite often. We’ve become friends”, Mahika divulges.

While we are talking, Mrs. Singh walks in and greets Mahika with a familiarity indicative of a close relationship. In the 1980’s, the Singhs opened a branch of The Book Shop in Khan market. Rising rents eventually forced them to shut down but Mrs. Singh still recalls her time there with fondness. “There were 5 of us at Khan Market. Five bookshops, all doing different things all supporting each other. If you couldn’t find a book in my shop, I’d send you to Bahrisons,” she tells us smiling at the memory.

Mrs. Singh is adamant that independent stores are the future. “What’s the pleasure in buying a book online. The fun is in browsing and discussing it with someone”, she says with a wistful look in her eye.

Mayday Bookstore

Located in a dark corner of Shadi Khampur in West Patel Nagar, Mayday Bookstore is a hard place to find. Sitting in a street full of medical stores and shoddy restaurants, the bookstore seems out of place in surroundings that include haggling rickshaw wallahs and restaurant customers.

As we walk in, we have to bend our heads to enter the basement-like space of the bookshop. Set up in 2012, on International Labour Day—a day celebrating the working class — Mayday Bookstore and Cafe is a unique initiative in that it is an ideologically directed, left wing bookstore. Founded by Left Word Books, a publishing house run by the CPI (M), the bookstore houses a curated selection of left leaning books on history, theater and poetry. In addition to this, the bookshop collaborates with Studio Safdar, an adjacent theater space run by renowned leftist performance group Jana Natya Manch, to host a wide array of performances and events.

The manager and director of Mayday bookstore, Sudhanva Deshpande, has been a faithful member of both the CPI(M) and the theater group Jana Natya Manch for 30 years now. Sitting on a homely sofa set up against a wall of the store, he tells us how his journey into the literary world began. “I am a history graduate from Ramjas College and on passing out, I had no idea what kind of job I would be suited for. So when someone told me, ‘Why don’t you try publishing?’, I said ‘Sure’”. He goes on to tell us that he was  “good for nothing” and had no idea what a publishing house does, but in spite of that, he landed up at Left Word publishers.

“We never planned on having a bookstore” he says. “But at the publishing house, we noticed that people were coming to our office to ask for particular books that they saw on our website”. This, for Sudhanva, triggered the idea of opening a bookshop in conjunction with the publishing house, where customers would have access to the niche books they could find nowhere else. “For instance, you will find an Akhil Katyal here that you won’t find at Cha Bar or any other bookstore”, says Sudhanva confidently.

The bookshop has a regular customer base of students from universities like JNU, Ambedkar and DU. In addition to this, the space is also a gathering hub for left wing academics and intellectuals who come  either in search of a particular book, or to attend one of the many events hosted in the space.

As we look around, we notice peculiar posters and artwork. On the ceiling, there hangs an installation displaying a miniature cycle attached to a kettle, while on the opposite wall, a masked man raises his fist in conjunction with an Arabic caption. “This is a free Palestine proclamation”, says Amit Sheokand, the intern who has been working at the bookstore for a year now.

On asking him how he was hired, he says, “I volunteered here during the last Mayday sale”. He goes on to tell us that after the sale, he became friends with Sudhanva on Facebook and as the two got to talking, he was asked to stay on at the bookstore as a permanent intern.

Sudhanva tells us that his method of hiring employees is rather informal. “Beyond a point”, he says, “it does not matter what an individual’s ideology is. A person does not have to be explicitly left wing for me to hire them. They just have to be an interesting individual, who espouses an avid interest in social and political issues”. However, with a laugh, he adds that he wouldn’t hire someone right wing.

Even when it comes to the books it publishes, Left Word does not harbour an explicit left wing bias. Though the publishing house is run by the CPI(M), Sudhanva states that it is more than willing to publish books critical of the left. “However, the critique should be factually sound and needs to be grounded in history.”  He goes on to show us a book titled, ‘B.R Ambedkar: India and Communism’ with a foreword by Anand Teltumbde that details how the left has negatively impacted the caste struggle.

Pointing to a shelf of books on the left hand side of the store, Sudhanva informs us that this shelf is dedicated solely to second hand fiction, with the books on the shelf being priced as low as Rs. 25. “Many people in the Shadipura area walk in asking for mainstream fiction. The second hand section is really popular with them, especially since the books there are so cheap”, he says.

We have now been in the shop for a while and our eyes have finally started adjusting to the cool and dark basement. The color ‘red’ is everywhere: on flags and posters splayed across various walls as well as on the cutlery in the kitchen area.

As we leave the basement, we leave behind the feeling of comfort that makes it seem like, rather than having visited a bookstore, we have just been to visit a family in their little red home.

 Having had our fill of independent bookstores we decide to seek out some of the more lucrative names in the world of books. Our first stop is in Connaught Place, one of the largest financial, commercial and business centres in Delhi.

Oxford Bookstore

Combining books, merchandise and a distinctive eatery, Chaa Bar, The Oxford Bookstore no longer limits itself to the sale of books but is a brand in itself. The store was first set up in 1919 in Kolkata’s Park Street and has now spread across the country with over 30 outlets in different cities. In 2019, the brand will be a 100 years old; Oxford plans to mark the occasion with a year long festival.

The senior most employee at the Delhi outlet, Vijay Kumar Sharma, has now been working with Oxford for 10 years. “I used to work at Times of India. One day, I came here to pick up a check. While at the counter, I started attending to customers. As luck would have it, the HR head and CEO were sitting at Cha Bar and they saw me. They hired me on the spot”.

He tells us that he has worked at all the main Oxford outlets, such as those in Kolkata and Bangalore. Over the years, he claims that he has befriended many of the stores customers, including some of the more illustrious ones. “In Bangalore, I have many authors who are my friends. I have had tea with Gurcharan Das and Ram Guha”, he says proudly. Mr. Guha, however, does not seem to recall Vijay. Instead, he says, “I visited Oxford very rarely”. He says he prefers pavement booksellers and has wonderful memories of the Sunday book market in Darya Ganj.

Vijay goes on to tell us about his passion for books. “I read one book everyday”, he says. He is a big fan of Indian classics like Manto and Chughtai. In the middle of the conversation, he points to a copy of ‘P.S I love you’ across from us and says, “A lot of girls who come into the store read this book and some of them even start crying”. We look at him, bemused.

Though Oxford is a big corporate, with its very own PR and HR divisions attached to each outlet, Vijay tells us that they are like a big family. “Even if I fall sick at 12 at night, I know I can call the HR team and they will send medicines”.

Still one of the most popular bookstores in Delhi, Oxford has managed to sustain itself by keeping up with the times. “One of the great advantages of Oxford” says Jairam Ramesh “ is that they’ve combined an eating space with a reading space.” With the term Cha Baar being used synonymously with Oxford, it is not difficult to see how combining food with reading has paid off.

Crossword Bookstore

We walk into Crossword’s only outlet in Delhi; surprising considering the renown and popularity that the brand enjoys in other states where the word ‘bookshop’ is interchangeable with ‘Crossword.’ Flanked by the designer brand ‘Aldo’ on one side and ‘La Cave’ on the other, the outlet is is in Select Citywalk Saket. The store is divided into two parts, with almost half of the floor space devoted to the sale of bags, T shirts, sunglasses and electronics.

The customer care executive here has been working with Crossword for a year and a half. He got the job through a friends recommendation and was chosen for his communication skills and ability to understand customer needs. But when we told him we ‘needed’ a book on feminism he responded with confusion. Studiously ignoring Simone De Beauvoir's magnum opus on feminism, The Second Sex he pointed at a book right next to it whose only claim to feminism was that it was by a female author.

He tells us, “When you’re working in a bookstore you don’t need to sell your product. Books sell themselves; people who are coming in know what they want.” It is evident that other employees at the store agree with this philosophy. It took them more than ten minutes to locate John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with them looking past it more than once.

 The customer care executive informs us that he is somewhat interested in reading and manages to finish 10-12 books a year. But he indicated that this was more a personal interest rather than a professional requirement.

Though Crossword was once a prominent haunt for book lovers, it now seems like the last place to come to if one wants to lose oneself in a world of words.

In a world where book shops have to compete with online retailers, they can go one of two ways. While bigger chains like Oxford and Crossword combine the reading experience with commercial ventures that cater to the larger market, independent bookstores sustain themselves with personalised service that cultivates a regular clientele.

Mukul Manglik Associate Professor of History at Ramjas College points out what makes smaller bookstores unique. “Take the Book Shop for example, the people who work there love books. They can discuss the contents of a book with you. That’s what you get at MayDay as well with someone like Sudhanva,” he says. “It’s a transformative experience.”

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