In 2003, T.N. Shanbhag received the Padmashree award and Shanbhag's Strand Book Stall is now in Bombay and Bangalore.
After shutting its doors to the last movie patron nearly 13 years ago, the erstwhile Strand Cinema is finally going to be rebuilt. And along with the revival of movie history, a dark corner on the first floor of the building will restore some of Mumbai’s book culture — incidentally, the famous eponymous Strand Book Store had its origins here.
From 1948 to 1954 a small kiosk set up at the theatre sold around 1000 to 1500 books to the city’s elite as they emerged from their English movies. Later, the 750 sq foot Strand Book Stall opened in Mumbai’s Fort area. And the fairy tale has grown ever since.
During that era, owner T N Shanbag was studying economics at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College on a scholarship. Strapped for cash, he would save Rs 5 every week and indulge in seven-eight Penguin books to keep him going (They cost Rs 12 anna then).
“I became a book lover when I was 13-14. When I came to Bombay I constantly visited this large bookstore and bought books from there. The Penguin’s and Pelicans were the cheapest and I stocked up on them. They revolutionised book reading with their cheap no-frill paperbacks.”
But once when the dishevelled student was entering the store to browse for his collection, an overbearing staffer humiliated him.
“He refused to let me enter. He thought I was cheap and said that if I wanted a book I had to ask for it from outside. I wanted to browse and see what was new in the market. How could I do that, if I wasn’t even allowed entry?,” he says still sounding annoyed.
That’s when Shanbag resolved that he would open a bookstore of his own and stock affordable titles and encourage browsing. “I was so upset by the incident I went to an Irani restaurant next door and cried. I just couldn’t understand why anybody would stop someone else from reading.
Knowledge is supposed to be shared, not bought and sold,” he added.
The affable Shanbag managed to save Rs 450 from his scholarship money by the time he was 18 and set out to realise his dream.
“Once when I was walking out of Strand cinema after watching Lawrence Olivia’s Hamlet, I noticed a small vacant corner in the building. Struck by an idea, I immediately asked Keki Modi (the then owner) if he could rent the space for a book store,” the vociferous reader said.
“Keki asked me how much rent I could afford and I honestly told him that I only had Rs 450 in my pocket. He realised that I was an enthusiastic kid and let me use the space. Once I started making some money I paid him Rs 100 rent per month. I sold my first book on November 20, 1948 — Winston Churchill’s War Memoirs, Volume 1”
Shanbag would set up shop by 2.30 pm (the first show was on at 3.30 and close down at 10 pm when the last show had started). Being a reader himself, he would stock hard to find titles because he knew their real worth. “I was a reader selling to a reader, not a businessman,” he said. “You could go to much bigger stores across the city and you wouldn’t find half the titles I stocked even then.”
And though Shanbag could watch most of his movies for free while at the theatre ( one of his favourite movie watched at Strand remains Lawrence of Arabia) he preferred to sit on his lone chair and read.
“Through word of mouth people heard of the fact that there was this little book store at Strand Cinema that stored rare titles. I had the likes of Aditya Birla, Gayatri Devi and even Jawaharlal Nehru come into my store — I recommended 23 books to him and he bought them all. For years after that every time I visited Delhi, I took books for him.”
The legend of course continues today. The store has moved to Firoshima Mehta Road, but the subtle language of sharing knowledge and uninterrupted browsing continues. Shanbag hasn’t been to a theatre in 25 years, but as he says, “With 6,500 books in my personal collection, who has the time?”