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Story of the Bookstores in Delhi

Whether it was the job-seeking immigrants who flocked to Delhi beginning in the 1950s or the forced influx in the aftermath of the Partition, Delhi has been a city that had its doors open for everyone.

It is no surprise therefore that two of the oldest bookstores in the capital were set up by immigrants. Considering that books are never on top of the tree stuff when household budgets are drawn up, it was very brave of Messrs Faqir Chand (Faqir Chand Marwaha to give him his full name) and Balraj Bahri Malhotra to even think of setting up general bookstores. Both Chand and Malhotra crossed over from Pakistan and opened Faqir Chand & Sons and Bahrisons respectively – the former in 1951 and the latter in 1953 – both in Delhi’s now-upmarket Khan Market.

Bookstores in Delhi

Artist ©️Aditya Raj (Picture Courtesy: Bahri Sons)

Another old-timer, Midland’s Mirza Yaseen Baig, meanwhile, moved into Delhi in 1970 from Hyderabad (Deccan, not Sindh) to set up what was then called Book Selection Centre in the vicinity of Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place before moving to its current location in Janpath and naming it New Book Land. The circular store, which was a circular flower stall when Baig bid for it, still exists in its original form.

Each of their journeys has been well-documented over the years in media. So, what’s new in this retrospective of bookstores in Delhi? Well, this report sees the appearance, evolution and, in some cases, the disappearance of loved bookstores through the eyes of their patrons.

Past forward

He was 14 or 15 when Vijay Dhar first visited Bahrisons in Khan Market back in the mid-1950s. A standalone outlet then, Dhar remembers the strict but kindly Mr. Bahri recommending books that he ought to read. Dhar, who owns and actively manages the Delhi Public School Srinagar even now, chuckles at the memories of his bookshop adventures.

His interest in books was kindled by the lady proprietor of a tiny six feet by twelve feet bookstore in Srinagar named Draupadi – a store in which the cashier-manager-owner took up nearly half the entrance space. She would give him a few books and ask him to read them and come back. The caveat? She would ask him about the characters, the plot before the next instalment.

From Draupadi to Crossword, Dhar remembers marvelling at the huge wide spaces of Crossword in South Extension that he would visit later in life. A Marvel comic and classics fan in his younger days, Dhar now frequents Midland in Aurobindo Place whenever he is scouting for books for the school library. After one of the worst floods in Srinagar seven years ago, Dhar had to replace all the 32000 titles that were turned to pulp by the water. Many of these came from Delhi’s bookstores.

Today, Baig’s Midland has added three more outlets to his original bookstore located in Janpath. Midland now has South Extension and Aurobindo Place in the capital. A fourth one is in Gurugram. Bahrisons too has added three more stores to its repertoire. While not exactly chains, these independent stores have made their presence felt.

Dhar’s younger son, Vikas, in his mid-50s is a voracious reader too, whose appetite was fuelled by a hole-in-the-wall comic book shop in a lane in Khan Market during his growing up years. “We would get a comic book for 10p,” he remembers and adds, “But I was always a little afraid of Mr. Singh, the stern owner of The Book Shop in the same market.”

Bookstores in Delhi

The Book Shop in Jor Bagh (Picture Courtesy: The Book Shop)

As a child, he would be fascinated by the revolving showcase in The Book Shop and the books that adorned it. The younger Dhar goes down memory lane recollecting how they would stock up on books from Delhi’s stores on their annual visits from Srinagar where he studied. It would, accompanied by large helpings of peanuts, help them over the long winter evenings. His mother would tell the brothers and sisters stories as they sat around the Bukhari.

He has an interesting story connected with books. Years ago, his older brother introduced him to a girl (who eventually became his wife) when he was in college with a tempting teaser: “I have found the perfect match for you. Her father gives her pocket money that mainly goes into buying books for herself.” The rest, as he puts it, was folklore in the family. His wife Sunanda remembers visiting a bookstall in Shankar Market which would lend and sell books and comics.

Three generations of the book-loving Dhar family are now seeing the fourth generation – Vikas and Sunanda’s teenage daughters – following in their footsteps. The urge to buy books has not diminished though the taste in books varied. While Vikas’ mother preferred thrillers, his sister was a Mills and Boon fan. His grandfather was more eclectic, sometimes reading three books a day – they would range from Proust to Stalin, from communism to mysteries, and from novels to short stories.

Delhi’s bookstores were a wonderland for us,” explains Vikas.

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The spaces may fade…

What bookstores do to the general well-being of a booklover and buyer has been talked to death. And one of the things that changed about the way bookstores were run was the commercial aspect. In the old days, it was not the money that made their owners keep ticking away. “Mr. Singh,” recalls Dhar, “stocked and recommended books that he enjoyed.” Even Faqir Chand’s had the same policy. To a large extent they were helped by the fact that rents were either very low or that they owned the spaces they operated out of.

However, love can’t run a bookstore forever. Indie stores (short for independent : stand-alone, non-chain stores), especially, began feeling the heat. Owners have to be constantly on their toes monitoring financials, inventory, understanding the pulse of the market. One wrong step could send things spiralling out of control, leading to unexpectedly premature closures. The instances of curtains going down on bookstores could fill a book.

‘Permanently closed’ announces Google when you search for E D Galgotia & Sons. Old timers fondly recall visiting Galgotia’s general books section (it had one for educational books too). Six years ago, it had to down shutters 82 years after it had been set up. Its closure followed close on the heels of the Vasant Vihar gem, Fact & Fiction (1984-2015).

Others that went out of business were Spell & Bound in Safdarjang Development Area (it lasted all of four years since it opened in 2011), New Book Depot (1925-2012) and Bookworm (1978-2000) in Connaught Place, the ill-fated Corner Book Stores (that ambitiously wanted to be in as many localities as it could), Timeless Art Book Studio (which fortunately resurrected itself), Teksons and Sehgal Brothers (in South Extension) – the list reads like a Who’s Who of Delhi’s bookstores.

Even a big chain like Crossword, owned by Shoppers Stop, had its problems. Crossword, which had started resembling a stationery-toy shop of late was sold to a Pune-based business house. Reports suggest that the new owner has ambitious plans for its revival.

…but the memories remain

“Back in the 1980s, I used to pick up my Alistair Macleans from Galgotia,” says 76-year-old S Ganguly who still misses the attentive and helpful young staff. He found it easier to travel from West Delhi, where he lives, to Connaught Place once the Delhi Metro began functioning but unfortunately just when access became easier, the bookstore shut down. Now, he tells his son to buy books for him online. However, despite the online boom, there is something about brick and mortar that makes people push open their doors and walk in. And it is not just the romance of being in a physical bookstore.

Forty-one-year-old Kapil Pandey, who is a storyteller by passion and a ‘display identity person’ by profession (his company creates signage solutions), grew up in Delhi and Mumbai. He became reader because his father would read out passages from PG Wodehouse to a nine-year old Kapil. He would sketch out the characters and the humour.

“I did not have the kind of books that most children would have at that age,” he explains. Magazines like Champak and Tinkle. Thereafter it was the Tintin books that his father would buy for him. “I bought my first Hardy Boys mystery in Strand Mumbai,” says Pandey. Detective stories and humour were what he preferred.

Pandey, who was born in Delhi, moved with his family to Mumbai but returned in 1993 when he was in grade 9. Having grown up in the Pandara Road area, it was Khan Market and The Book Shop (“Sardarji uncle was very friendly and recommended books”) and Faqir Chand for him. Faqir Chand was too crowded to sit and read a book but The Book Shop had enough space to sit and go through a book – a “warm space”.

One big change Pandey has seen is in the way the Book Shop and its owners let people take their time and allow even children to look at books. In the past, one or two bookstores would probably allow such indulgence. Now, however, things have changed for the better. “Eureka, for instance,” he says, “even allows children to scatter books around. That kind of empathy contributes to a child’s eventual love and feel for books.” It is a vibe that more and more bookstore owners are creating now.

Bookstores in Delhi

Faqir-Chand Bookstore in Delhi (Picture Courtesy: Faqir-Chand Bookstore)

Teksons Bookshop in South extension was a particular favourite for Taveesh Pande, 53. A hosteler in Delhi Public School RK Puram, Taveesh would haunt bookstores whenever he got the opportunity. “It was good fun going into a bookshop and exciting. I like cluttered bookshops where you have to carefully negotiate your way about. One wrong move and you could topple 50 books over,” he says. Books were an expensive proposition for a student or even someone who is starting off on work life.

“You saved up and got one or two books a month,” says Taveesh. The second-hand footpath book stalls in Daryaganj were magnets that drew many like Taveesh and Ganguly. Now that has moved location but has its takers. A.H. Wheeler at the railway station was another must-stop on any journey. “Parents were a little bit more generous when travelling,” he laughs.

Taveesh visited Teksons first when he was around 17 after he moved to Delhi. “It was the first stylish bookstore I remember. I never felt the pressure to buy a book – the bookstore owners would never breathe down your neck even when I walked in alone without my parents. Bookshops like Teksons simply moved my interest in reading to another level. I was very upset when it had to close down.”

Born in the year India got its independence, Bashabi Dasgupta’s active book phase began back in 1958-59 when she was 11 and lasted till she was 16. She still finds time to read up but the interest has changed. From comics when she was young, the architect when growing up read up a lot of Bengali literature too as well as old classics and Agatha Christie. Now, she prefers non-fiction.

“We lived on Humayun Road. In the afternoons, I would hop across to Faqir Chand, read a comic or two and go off to play with my friends. The owner was kind enough to allow me that,” she says. I preferred going to Faqir Chand than Bahrisons. The former was more welcoming to children. In fact, last year she went to Faqir Chand to thank the current owners for their father’s ‘gift’ to her when she was growing up. It was like going back into childhood, she recalls. The same location, the same clutter, the same warm feeling.

For Bashabi, books make the most wonderful gifts. For her wedding, she insisted that her friends give her books and nothing else. Occupying pride of place in her home is the Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas that she got as a gift on her wedding. Now, in her 70s, she shops for books for her grandson. “It is my payback but I still like going to a friendly bookstore,” she says.

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What makes the market

According to trends identified by Nielsen BookScan, the Indian publishing market is largely a backlist titles reading market. Says Vikrant Mathur, head of Nielsen BookScan India, “Brick and mortar outlets provide ample opportunities for serious readers to choose backlist titles.”

Performance consultant and alternative theatre enthusiast Parnab Mukherjee, 46, remembers the quaint things that happen in and around bookstores. He recalls watching a man sitting opposite The Book Shop in Khan Market with a scroll of Nepali paper in 2006,  sketching readers coming out with a book in their hands. Why?

Because books are my love. I am in art college and I see that people coming out of a bookstore have a different kind of happiness. I wanted to capture that.

He would do this in front of Fact & Fiction too.

Mukherjee also loved visiting the bookstore with the cafeteria inside Shriram Centre. Run by Vani Prakashan Publishers, Mukherjee enjoyed browsing for a ‘wealth of out-of-print playscripts’ many of which were never staged. There were hardly 20 or 30 copies of many – probably published by the authors themselves. The shop had to move out of the Centre 13 years ago because of administrative issues and technicalities.

Book Cart inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus was another that attracted him. It had a wonderful collection, especially of books on socio-politics and a selection of extremely good independent activist multi-lingual literature from across the country. However, it had a whimsical owner who had no fixed timings for opening and closing.

Bookstores in Delhi

In picture: Inside Faqir-Chand Bookstores [Picture  Courtesy:  Faqir-Chand Bookstores]

New wave

Closure has become an oft-repeated word in this century when it comes to bookstores. Fact & Fiction closed down. The Book Shop downed shutters in Khan Market because of the costs – after a glorious run from 1983 to 2006. It stayed on with the Jor Bagh outlet that had opened in 1971, completing half a century this year.  The Turtle cafe in Khan Market is gone too.

During the pandemic, Full Circle announced that it was moving out of Khan Market to Mehar Chand Market only to resurface in Khan Market in a new location just one door away from where it was situated pre-pandemic.

On the other hand, there were new beginnings and new ideas. Specialist children’s-only bookstores such as Eureka! showed up. Back in 2003 when it first made its appearance, Eureka was probably the first only-children’s-books bookstore in Delhi. By the end of 2014, skyrocketing rentals had forced it to disappear. But it made a comeback last year in the middle of the pandemic. In Khan Market, Bahrisons added on a children’s division that stocks books for the younger generation.

Parents were grateful for developments of this kind. It stoked a new interest in reading as a variety of formats, stories and books hit the market, increasing in number every successive year. Some bookstores turned publishers too with their own imprints. It helped shore up the financials in many cases,  Om Book Shop being a case in point.

In-store events, that were few and far between before the year 2000 suddenly became de rigueur. While children’s bookstores invited youngsters with age-appropriate meet-the-author sessions, workshops and activities, the regular bookstores tried differentiation that matched their positioning. CMYK Bookstore, a Roli Books initiative that prides itself as India’s largest art and design bookstore, screened movies to attract more customers when it was in Mehar Chand Market. This, coupled with book launches or book parties made CMYK a sought-after destination for art and design lovers. Now, it has moved to Greater Kailash-2.

Bookstores with their own cafes like Full Circle went a little beyond books to draw customers. Finding a table inside Oxford Bookstore’s Cha Bar is a tough exercise. Bahrisons in Galleria Market, Gurgaon has a cafe. Even a niche bookstore like May Day Bookstore found that it helped to have a café. The ‘left-wing’ bookstore’s café is unique – you can pay what you want. It has also created a space exclusively for performances and plays. Based in west Delhi, it completed nine years this year.

Increased competition – especially from on-line players – forced bookstores to innovate. Cafes were one example. Another was in-store events or sessions.

Bookstores of Delhi

CMYK Movie night poster (Picture Courtesy CMYK)

Interestingly, CMYK Bookstore has collaborated with Eureka!, the children’s bookstore and the two now share floor space in Greater Kailash-2. India’s largest art and design bookstore meets the oldest children’s-only bookstore in its second innings. “It is so good to have them back,” says Shireen Khajuria, a young mother. Vinita Pandey has this to add: “I am smitten with the vibe, the character – and they are pet friendly too.”

The Oxford bookstore has a mini-auditorium in it, and hosts many events such as the Noir Lit Fest hosted by Meeta Kapur of Siyahi in 2017.

Om Book Shop took on an entirely different route. It closed down its high street outlets in South Extension and Vasant Vihar and went into malls. The store now has three outlets in malls in Delhi and eight more outside, all in malls.

Inside the book market

The market for books too has evolved over time in India. The simple fiction and non-fiction divide has given way to new genres and sub-genres within each category. “The growth of Indian authors and their popularity amongst the masses has made them household names. Sub-genres like historical and mythological fiction, romance and sagas and literary fiction have connected well with the Indian readers as do political biographies/autobiographies along with self-help, mind, body and spirit as also the serious non-fiction sub-genres,” explains Mathur of Nielsen BookScan. Sadhguru is amongst India’s top non-fiction authors, as you can see in the Himalayan Writing retreat’s bestseller list.

He goes on to add that the medium of information has changed tremendously in the last decade or so. Access to information has become easy with the help of smart mobile phones and easy internet connectivity. “Readers are able to find books and reviews even if they are unable to go to physical bookstores. Social media is the other marketing strategy that all the publishing companies and bookstores have adopted rather well,” he points out. He does not believe that bookstores have lost out – rather, they are as important as they were in the past.

Bookstores, on their part, are stocking themselves up with as many genres and sub genres as they can. It is difficult for a single bookstore to have everything but delivery times have reduced drastically. Order a book in the morning and it will probably be in your hands the next morning. Then there is the online aspect, with its ubiquitous influencers who nowadays occupy a special position when it comes to book recommendations. But for all those who are worrying about bookstores disappearing remember that even the biggest online retailer of books has started brick and mortar stores. So, there is something about a bookstore that appeals and will continue to do so.

Bookstores in Delhi

Writer’s Bio

Venkatesh M Swamy is festival director, Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, a multi-city, award-winning festival.

Through Bookaroo, he tries his best to do his bit to spread the joy of reading, helped in no small measure by authors, illustrators, storytellers,  publishers and foul-weather friends.

Love a bookstore? Tell us it’s story. Fill this form and we’ll get you started.

Read the story behind the Bookstores Project by Himalayan Writing Retreat HERE.

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