A bibliophile’s guide to Mumbai
It’s January and time for all of Mumbai’s iconic events. After the Mumbai Marathon and the Mumbai Festival comes the Strand Book sale. Book-lovers across the city have looked forward to this annual event far before the gleaming interiors of the other bookstores came into being.
While on this, here’s something that was written sometime back but will still be of interest to anyone who’s kicked about the Strand Book sale.
Much as I love this city, the one thing I have to admit it doesn’t satisfy is my raging craving for books. Mumbai isn’t a booklover’s city. There aren’t nearly as many people in this place that love books.
Still I can see the winds of change blowing over the Island. J.K.Rowling may not have added to fine literature but she did bring an entire generation of children back to books. And some adults as well, judging by the number of Harry Potters I’ve seen being toted around to bus-stops, on train journeys, coffee shops and what-nots.
Over these years of nosing around for good reads, I think I’ve developed a kind of sense for bookshops across the city. So here’s a list of the places I love because they cater to the one vice I admit to.
Landmark: Heading my list is this huuuuuggggge bookshop in the heart of Andheri West. You may wonder what a bookshop of this magnitude is doing, bang in the middle of “I’m so duuuuhhhh, but I’m beautiful, yeah” land. They must have known what they were doing since Landmark is getting a lot of recognition. It was probably set up to cater to the burgeoning suburbs taste for books but now it has become the new hotspot for readers from across the city.
Landmark has two things going for it: A great collection and staff that really do know books. They’re friendly without being intrusive and always willing to assist, no matter how ludicrous the query. I was super-impressed to see that their categories included Humour, Classics, Science Fiction and Modern Fiction….all of which are usually clubbed together in certain other wannabe bookshops.
Oxford: I discovered this place rather late, inconveniently located as it is, at the other end of town. My few visits tell me that this is probably the second-best place for books in the city. I won’t wax eloquent on its interiors, the coffee shop and the multitudnous collection of books. Suffice to say, this is one other place that has a good collection and friendly staff that actually know their books. What more does a good bookshop need?
Nalanda: This is the bookshop in the Taj hotel lobby. It is small (not in size but in terms of how many books they could have stuffed in there) but it has a reasonable collection. In the absence of Landmark and Oxford, this is where I used to buy my original, ‘good’ books.
Grand Maratha Sheraton: I haven’t visited their bookshop myself but Filmiholic tipped me off to this place, adding that,
People may roll their eyes at this, but I was quite surprised to find that the Grand Maratha, waaaaaaaaaay out by the airport (but so comfy to stay at), has a compact but well stocked bookshop, especially for anyone looking for books about India, be they fiction or non-fiction.
For example, two surprises were that they carried Sooni Taraporevala’s reissued coffeetable book on Parsis, and a massive road map/atlas of Bombay that I had called several large Crossword’s for, to no avail.
Seeing how long it takes to get there from downtown, I wouldn’t go just for the bookstore, but if one is out there for some other reason (afternoon quickie?), it’s worth popping in.
THE SHOPS AROUND THE CORNER: That description is supposed to be reminscent of Meg Ryan’s place in ‘You’ve Got Mail’. Yes, Mumbai has it’s own answer to her store. Several, in fact. You just have to look carefully. Here are my favorite friendly neighborhood bookshops.
The new & second-hand bookshop: The jewel of my collection of book-troves in this city, I actually have a nice little story to tell about this one. I discovered this place, entirely by mistake. One rainy, depressing afternoon, I was wandering about town, close to St.Xaviers’ college. I trundled down the filthy little lane that’s across the signal from the college’s road (that is the lane on the right of Furtado & sons, who are the place to visit if you want to pick up a musical instrument). I don’t know quite why I was there and alone of all things, getting soaked in the rain but I know I was looking for a bookshop. Ahem…so I’m slightly mad sometimes….to go looking for a bookshop in a random corner of the city. But you know what…I actually found it! A few mucky steps down that road, on the left, hidden away so you almost miss it is a little doorway with a dusty magazine rack (you know the kind that swirls around and is used to stack tourist guides in hotels and airports?). When you see that, you’ll be standing at the entrance to the New and Second-hand bookstore. Can I be corny and sing a line?
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave….
That’s how I felt when I left the shop that day. Incidently this first visit there, I spent over 2 hours in the shop. Imagine a dusty, high-ceiling room stacked ceiling to floor with books, pillars too…except they aren’t pillars, they’re more stacks of books. Turn the corner and try to keep from screaming if you see a little old man at the desk. That’s the person who’ll make your bill and he’s very nice. I usually pick up a bookmark at the shop that I buy a book in and in this place I picked two of the nondescript paper strips stamped with the shop’s name. This man looked at me for a minute and then suddenly spread out a whole lot of bookmarks on the table. I’ve never seen bookmarks like these…there was one in leather, one with a hand-painted Krishna and several other masterpieces. I looked at him ruefully and said,
They’re lovely. But I’ve spent all my money. I’ll come back next time for them, will you save them for me?
He smiled and said,
They’re for you. I can recognize a book-lover when I see one and I know these will be appreciated.
Yes, sir, I have. I’ve actually never used a single one of them, they’re just too precious a gift. And a lovely memory of a stranger who reached out to a fellow booklover, even if she was a muddy-toed, vagrant-like teenager.
Horizon: Now this isn’t a dusty, musty old shop, its just a tiny (and I mean REALLY tiny) nook that stores books. Horizon’s charm comes from the fact that it is a book-oasis bang in the middle of a busy, bustling vegetable market and stone’s throw away from the noise & bustle of the railway line.
Get off Vileparle station (Western line) and come out of on the west side. This spills you out onto a madly busy road and straight ahead, the sights and smells of the sabzi-mandi will greet you. Take a sharp turn to your left and look for a roadside magazine stall across the road (next to the corner restaurant and veggie-seller). If you have sharp eyes, you’ll spot a nicely paved path leading in from next to the mag-seller. Go down there and on your left you’ll spot Horizon. Step up and step into the wonderful world of book-browsing. The owners are wonderfully emphatic of penniless students and generally broke people who love books. If you like looking, they won’t mind your being there…there’s even a comfortable little stool for you to perch on…tiny, in keeping with the size of the place. If you know me in person, do tell the owner….some of our conversations date back 10 years.
Book Lovers: Another one in the same genre as Horizon except this one is right at the start of Lokhandwala market (closest to Andheri station, Western line. Also very close to Infinity mall, Fame Ad labs and Lakshmi Industrial Estate). I don’t find the owner of this place as friendly as Horizon but well, maybe he just is a quiet type and after all he and I don’t go back 10 years. However, the people who run this place are well-informed about books and will be able to procure a copy of whatever you want if you don’t have it. Incidently they’re probably losing business to Landmark these days so they might have some good offers available. The last I heard there was a 25% off on all books….which is great, I say.
Granth: This is another Horizon-like shop furthur north. The first Granth was set up in a mall in Malad. Granth is another of those shops that delighted the suburban bibliophile in the late 90s, insofar used to making the trip to TOWN to buy books. Granth’s collection, while compact is diverse enough to hold interest. They’ve expanded now and have another store in Juhu. I’ve been to this new place only once and while it doesn’t compare with Landmark and Oxford, its definitely worth a dekko. The sweeping view next to the couch also helps.
Danai: Located in a quiet lane just off Linking Road (the one stretching from Bandra to Borivali), Danai is one of the earliest book-and-music shops in the suburbs. Their book collection is located in the basement (brightly lit though) while music is housed upstairs. Like many of the other small shops in Mumbai, small spaces make for a restricted collection. Still, they have a really good collection, catering well to certain niches like fantasy fiction, travel guides and occult/astrology.
READING ON THE GO:
If you aren’t averse to reading books that have already been thumbed through by other people, you’re advised to check out the second-hand book-sellers across the city as well. Raddiwala is the local lingo for junkyard guy and some of these guys stock books that have been out of circulation for years. There’s a raddiwala at almost every corner of Mumbai and you’ll do well to discover your own personal recycler. Some places that I’ve noticed:
Irla bridge: I bet most people don’t even know where Irla is. Well, Irla is the narrow stretch connecting Andheri and Vileparle west. There’s a huge, smelly gutter and the road goes over it and hence….you guessed it, its called Irla bridge. Start walking down from Shoppers’ Stop, crossing a Barista on the way. Just before you reach the nulla, on the same side of the road, you’ll find a raddi-walla…..old newspaper bundles on the floor, back issues of Cosmopolitan, India Today, Business World and Debonair clipped neatly with clothes-clips. If you don’t already know, that’s the standard uniform of any second-hand bookshop.
This guy has a fantastic collection that’s constantly being replenished. Watch it with his attitude though. At the risk of sounding extremely bigoted, you might swing some great deals here if you speak Gujarati and end up paying more (with a few disdainful looks thrown your way) if you don’t. If you’re willing to live with that, check it out, his collection is good. And oh, throw an insult his way for me (I’ve had a few arguments with him…). Or if you speak Gujarati, please do me a return-favour for this tip and get me good bargains. :-)
Andheri station: Come out of the second most maddening railway station in Mumbai (after Dadar) and catch your breath. Cross the road and look around for the telltale stacks of books. Did I miss something? Oh yes, I didn’t tell you east or west (Ain’t I soooo Bambaiyya?). Hmm, that’s because you’ll find a bookseller on either side of the track. The one on the east is a little way to the left of the station exit and across the road, right outside the bunch of shops. The one on the west sits on the pavement of S.V.Road, next to those two corridors full of shops.
Parel/Elphinstone Road railway bridge: Are we starting to sound familiar now? Ah, yes, the Mumbail Railway network seems to be running through my post with the same frequency as it does through the city. Well, I like most true Mumbaikers (so there, townies!) spend a fair bit of time on the train line so my addas are to be found on and around it. Coming back, some people know that the Western and Central railway lines cross at Dadar station. Well, did you know that this connection continues one station furthur south? Parel station on the Central line and Elphinstone station on the Western line are the siamese twins of the Mumbai rail network, connected as they are by one narrow bridge. You can even hear the announcements for one line, on the other platform. Well, what’s the significance of that bit of trivia? The fact that there’s a damn good bookseller perched on that bridge up there. There’re usually two of them, grown-up street kid-like with all the characteristic street-smartness and Mumbaiker warmth. They’re also surprisingly well informed where books are concerned and will be able to hand you just the right books if you ask for say…a Booker winner or perhaps, a volume on hypnosis. The ‘shop’ is just a sheet of cloth with books laid out neatly but the collection is big enough to merit a second glance. Please note here that some of the books are reprinted copies of the more expensive publications. Okay that spells PIRACY for a lot of people, so if you have an issue with that, you’ve been forewarned.
Flora fountain: As a book-lover in Mumbai, it is probably vital for me to make a mention of this road close to Churchgate station. True, this used to be the Mecca for us a few years back. However with all the shops getting frequently cleared away and a lot of little ‘konas’ sprouting up in the other parts of the city, Flora just doesn’t do it anymore.
Ah…allow me to reminisce for a moment about the times when I was a penniless student and I’d spend 3 hours walking down this road and spending my hard-saved pocket money on books. I think the total I must have spent at a time on books would have been 800 bucks (top top absolute tops) but I’d go home with bulging bags of cookery books (for mum), a sci-fi (for dad), mystery, self-help, thrillers (for me) and bestsellers (for all of us). Those were the days….and somehow these days when I can walk into a brightly lit, snazzy store and snap up a load of brand-new books on my credit card….it just doesn’t feel the same. Okay, end of nostalgia trip. Sniff snifff.
You will notice I haven’t made any mention of a certain other well-known chain that’s spread its tentacles across the city. They don’t have a particularly impressive collection unless you read only management books and the ‘faddy’ books. Their staff doesn’t appear to know anything about books and worse still, they’re openly rude and unhelpful. It is a sheer insult to a book-lovers’ intelligence to try and have a conversation with them. If I’m venomous its because I’m appalled by the lack of good service (or books) and what’s more, I now have several alternatives. So chuck the yellow-and-black guys and go out and find some real book-treasure-troves!
These then are the secrets of my bibliophile self, lovingly compiled from my lifelong love affair with books. Happy book-browsing!