Padmashree Shanbhag

Without doubt, he is the city's best known and most loved bookseller. Mr. T. N. Shanbhag, owner of Strand Book Stall at P.M. Road has been awarded the Padmashree, a well-deserved and well-earned national recognition. At the Strand Book Sale, he talks to INDIRA RODERICKS about his love affair with books referring to himself as not just a bookseller, but a bookseller with a heart!

Everybody in the city knows Strand Book Stall. Apart from selling fabulous books at amazing discounts, the owner Mr. T. N. Shanbhag is a known figure at the store. Always impeccably dressed in a suit, you can find him assisting a customer or browsing through the books at his store. In fact, that is exactly what he does at the annual Strand Book Sale currently on at Sunderbai Hall, New Marine Lines. You'd find him there as well, dressed as usual in a suit, despite the heat, talking, helping and guiding customers. But this time the customers both known and unknown to him line up to shake his hand. Congratulations Padmashree Shanbhag, they say. And Mr. Shanbhag can't help but feel embarrassed. He shyly tells you, "The important thing about getting this award is that I am a commoner and I have not pulled any strings to be on that list."

Last year Mr. Shanbhag was in hospital for seven months for a heart ailment. During his stay the chief minister's assistant visited him and jotted down his bio-data and asked him to name a few of his close friends. So Mr. Shanbhag rattled off the names that came to his mind... Narayana Murthy, Aziz Premji, Dr. Rafiq Zakaria, Soli Sorabjee. It didn't seem unusual, so he didn't bother asking why. Until last week when he saw his name in the paper that he realised what the visit was all about.

Not being awarded the Padmashree wouldn't have bothered him either, he said. I would still continue with my work. Though I am happy..., even more since President Kalam is an old customer and it would be good to meet him in New Delhi next month during the awards ceremony. Plato said every country must have a 'philosophical kid' and our president is just that. Knowing him as well as I do, I say we are in very safe hands.

This is the fifth consecutive year of the Strand Book Sale. And every year it gets bigger and better. Pointing to the crowds, Mr. Shanbhag said, "Look, the hall is getting smaller but I am not prepared to hold this in a open ground. I am offering discounts from 40 per cent to 80 per cent. Which other bookstore in the country does that. The crowds get bigger, so maybe I'll just have the sale twice a year then."

The reason why Mr. Shanbhag offers discounts is because he wants people to buy books. Most of the publishers are his friends, so he manages to get them at a price he wants. "I order huge amounts..., 10,000 copies and sell them at good discounts. That way people buy and the publishers are happy. Stephen Hawking's latest book Edge Of The Universe is sold for Rs. 1,800 worldwide but I sell it for Rs. 600. Now tell me where can you get a price like that."

"When an author writes," he continued, "He is hoping that somewhere in some corner of the world, someone will read his book. When I began this store, I sat under a tree at the Prince Of Wales Museum and thought about books. I learned not just to read them but to understand them and to know about the author and in turn the customer. I use to sell discounted books at a small kiosk at Strand Cinema before I started the store. That's how the name came about."

Mr. Shanbhag has always been interested in books. "When I was a student I used to save my money and buy old Penguins from cheap book stores. Then, one day I was thrown out from the store..., that's when I thought why not sell books and offer them at discounted prices to people," he said. He continued, "When selling books becomes all about money, then the essence is lost. You must sell with your heart, you must know the customer, the author, the history behind everything connected with the book. It must go beyond a simple exchange of money. This is the philosophy that I have built my bookstore on. What's this about selling coffee in book stores. I don't understand it, If you come to my store, I will offer you a cup of coffee, but not sell it to you. You want coffee, you go to a restaurant. Look at these fancy bookstores..., but at the end of the day, one must know what one sells."

Despite his hospitalisation last year, Mr. Shanbhag continues to visit the bookstore everyday. The doctors have advised him to rest during the afternoons and that's when he goes to his office nearby and takes a short nap. After that it's back to the store. But the books at the store are not his only companions. At home he has an enviable collection of around 2,000 books. "Mostly continental and classical literature, German, French... I have travelled all over the world and have discovered authors. How many in India have heard of Karel Cepack. I read her and I have sold hundreds of copies of her books in India. But I still read, every night though not as much as I used to. My health does not permit that."

His daughter Vidya Virkar manages the branch at Bangalore. But although she has inherited her father's passion for the written word, Mr. Shanbhag is grooming her to be more philosophical, more ideal in her thinking. "Selling and buying is a vision. It was Rabindranath Tagore who said 'Knowledge Is Free' and to me that sums up my work."