ON DAYS WHEN he was working, T.S. Shanbhag kept to the same routine. He would drive in from the west of the city and park near M. Chinnaswamy stadium by 8.30am. From there he would walk to the centre, to Koshy’s restaurant on St Mark’s Road, where he had his morning coffee: the best in Bangalore, proper south Indian, milky yet strong. It was hard to resist the breakfasts on offer, appam with vegetable stew, potato smileys and the rest, served by waiters who glided about with the deference of English butlers. But he preferred just to banter with his old friend Prem Koshy, who would greet him with a hearty “How are you, my dear Sir?” and later, repaying the favour, might well drop in to buy books.
Premier Book Shop stood diagonally opposite, on Church Street, a modest place shaded by a honge tree. His place and Koshy’s were relics of the sleepy Bangalore of the past, before it became tech city and the malls and multiplexes moved in. Increasingly now the corner swarmed with traffic, hooting motorbikes and swerving autorickshaws, but he dodged neatly between them. He was limber from all his crouching and stretching to retrieve this or that book, daily acrobatics in the service of good reading.
The shop was about 15 feet wide and 25 feet long, fine for his purposes when he moved in in 1971. He had been working at his uncle’s Strand Book Stall in Mumbai, the best job he could find as a village boy from near Kundapur, but for various reasons it was best after a while to start up on his own. This place had been a clothing store, but had been burned out; he paid 900 rupees to rent it, and gradually filled it with five lakh (500,000) books. They not only lined every wall but were piled in an eight-storey mountain in the middle. If you dug to the bottom of it, you would discover the reading habits of Bangaloreans three decades before. He had made the mountain carefully, placing each volume in a slanting position, so that by an apparent miracle it did not fall down. Round it his customers moved clockwise and sideways, as if in a temple of words.
His own little den was just inside the door, behind a desk stacked so high with books and invoices that only his head was visible. From there, with his quiet smile, he greeted the customers in English or Kannada and fetched what they could not find. Some liked to stand and read for hours, leaving without buying, but that was fine. Others rifled through the stacks, pulling them out of all order (for there was a system, in his mind at least), knowing that you could turn up older and cheaper editions under the newer ones, and special treasures, Borges or Fellini perhaps, from the lower right-hand stack near the window. He placidly wiped and sorted after them. Children were parked in the shop while their parents went off somewhere, and that was fine too; there was a little stool in a corner where they could sit, and a pile of abridged Penguin Classics. When his child visitors flowered into writers, poets and historians, he took a modest pride in that.
His grown-up customers were treated with the same care. His shop was intellectually serious: few novels, thrillers, or that bestselling kind of thing, but instead a feast of new books in English on history, biography, science, economics and world literature (his own favourite author was Camus). He provided food for minds, as Koshy’s provided it for bodies. And every book was at a discount, the first at a bookshop in Bangalore, of 10% off everything. If he saw an impoverished student sighing over a volume, then putting it back, he would let them borrow it instead. When orders were needed urgently, he would drive across the city to deliver them in person. No action gave him so much joy as putting a book that was wanted into someone’s hand.
He also knew what his regulars wanted before they knew themselves. He kept a psychological track of their purchases, not on any computer (since he disliked all that, filling out his invoices by hand or on a sturdy ancient typewriter), but in his brain, as good exercise. That brain already contained all the titles of a crowd of authors, as well as the whereabouts of any book in the shop; it also contained the comics customers had bought, years ago, with their first pocket money, and their shifting interests since. Armed with this he would softly approach, in his leather slippers, and say to a browser, “Why don’t you try….?” Customers often complained of leaving with many more books than they had meant to buy; or coming in for a book on cricket, and leaving with one on Marx.
In return, the customers cared about him. They nagged him, though kindly, to take credit cards, which he did with great reluctance, and to expand his business when the restaurant closed next door, though he had no ambitions that way. He saw himself as a friendly local librarian, rather than a businessman. When a huge increase in rents around Church Street threatened the shop, it seemed that most of Bangalore helped him with donations. Those kept him going for two years, but in 2009 he had to shut it down.
He was perfectly sanguine about it. He had been at Premier for 38 years, and was getting old. His eyes, with all that reading, were not so good. Besides, change was part of life; there was no need to get emotional. He sold the books at 60% discount, and gave the rest to libraries all over the city. Even the name-board was recycled, and the shop became a fancy bar. His walks now took him to the other bookshops in the city, where he was just one more customer browsing.
The passing of Premier was much mourned; but his own death seemed to affect the city more. At first sight, this seemed strange. On that day, 161 Bangaloreans died of the virus. He was probably among the most unassuming of them. But what had also died with him, many felt, was a rare part of old Bangalore, an unhurried place far distant from the slick and booming version, together with an old-fashioned style of quiet full-hearted service. In that small corner of the city he had made a sanctuary, along with Prem Koshy, whose coffee had kept him and the browsers going. Koshy’s was open as usual; the metal blinds came down only for lockdowns or personal bereavements. But inside Mr Koshy sighed for “the angel of my books”. ■
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “The bookseller of Bangalore”