Friday, October 31, 2008

City Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market

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Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market

The past, present and future of Delhi's lovable bookstore.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

In my dream, I find myself outside Khan Market's The Book Shop. I was told it had shut down two years ago and that there's a Swarovski show room in its place.


Here's the glass door, the racks, the new arrivals, the poetry shelf, the history section, and in the cubicle – the turbaned Mr Kanwarjit Singh Dhingra, aka KD Singh – a bookseller for 38 years. And here's one of his pretty daughters carrying a cup of cold coffee. Suddenly, the ground opens up. The books falls into the void. KD, too. A whipping wind. A blinding light. The dream ends. I'm in a Swarovski showroom!

They were right. Khan Market's The Book Shop is history.

I walk up Subramaniam Bharti Marg, through Lodhi Garden, across the Lodhi Road, into Jorbagh Market. Next to Steakhouse, where there's a small crowd, stands an establishment where there's no crowd. What's this? Could it be…? It certainly looks like it…. Here are the racks, the new arrivals and in the cubicle – KD and wife Nini.

This is no dream.

This Jorbagh bookstore, called The Book Shop, circa 1970, was the first of KD's many bookstores. But methinks that the shop at Khan Market, his fifth, was more original than the original.

During the hey days of Khan Market booksellers, people would head there for books, not shoes and sandwiches. Those who wanted tomes on current affairs patronised Bahrisons. Coffee table book lovers would spend hours in Timeless Art Book Studio. Genesis was for children. Full Circle tempted those seeking self-help and a cup of coffee. Bargain hunters hung out in Fakirchand. For literary fiction, the address was The Book Shop. Since 1982.

There used to be a joke among Delhi journos that if you wanted to interview so-and-so, hang around in The Bookshop and you would get that guy. True.

All the so-and-sos' came here – Shashi Tharoor, Manju Kapur, Bulbul Sharma, William Dalrymple, VS Naipaul, Jan Morris and Salman Rushdie. Gabriel Garcia Marquez spent an afternoon here.

Khushwant Singh once wrote he would park his car in front of the Bahrisons and shop at The Bookshop. The Peruvian ambassador of the time would come to get LPs of western classical music (KD sell that, too). When Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things came out in 1997, the only place in Delhi to find the novel during the first two months was at The Bookshop.

The sun shone for 24 years even as the monthly rent of the 480 sq feet of retail space spiralled. While KD paid Rs 20, 000, the landlord, old friend Maneka Gandhi, expected more. Things fell apart. KD left Khan Market and returned to Jorbagh where wife Nini was holding fort.

"Delhi lost a damn good bookstore," KD sighs. "The Bookshop at Khan Market can't be replaced by me or anybody else. It was at the right place at the right time."

The Jorbagh store, too, has character. Early this year it was described by The New York Times as "the coziest bookstore in the country." This is also perhaps the only store, apart from Fact & Fiction in Basant Lok, that keeps handsome if expensive classics by The New York Review of Books. Most lie unsold. "If customers can't afford them it's my bad luck," he says. "But I must give them an option."

The owner, has become a city institution. Not many know that it was KD who started the legendary Bookworm in Connaught Place (the spiral staircase there was his idea). KD also ran a bookstore at the Manor hotel in Friends Colony, besides opening a bookshop in Calcutta! They all closed down. "Our Jorbagh establishment survived," says Nini.

However, if rentals at Jorbagh go up, KD might have to close this shop, too. He's not worried. You, too, don't worry if you observe more crowds in the adjacent Steakhouse. KD has a partnership there.

Next year looks more cheery. On April 1, Rachna, KD's eldest daughter, will open her bookstore in Toronto, Canada. Compared to Jorbagh's 350 sq ft, hers would have a floor area of 33,000 sq ft.

KD may not make it for the opening. He is 67 and still busy. Each morning he drives down in his metallic blue Corolla from his Noida Sector 25 bungalow to Jorbagh. He never has lunch. Only at 7.30 pm, when he has finalised the next day's orders and made sure there are no customers lurking, does he turn off the lights and go home to a well-deserved meal.

Where Jorbagh Market (next to Steakhouse) Ph 011-2469-7102

Driver, stop!

Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market


Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market

The Old Gentry, outside the Book Shop

The Old Gentry

KD, the Book Shop bookseller

Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market

No, that one

Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market

KD, suggest me a book

Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market

Portrait of a marriage

Delhi Landmark - The Book Shop, Jorbagh & Khan Market


Anonymous said...

thanks for the great piece on the bookshop... i was working at the Khan Market store from '96 to '99! brought back many pleasant memories... and i'm going to go and meet KD uncle and catch up on the old times in Jorbagh!

great photos too... keep up the good work!


Anonymous said...

Mr. Soofi, you look better with your sideburns and wisps of hair falling over your forehead.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Soofi, I am reading McCall Smith's Heavenly Date And Other Flirtations. It will take me a few months to finish it because I am also studying. Smith has written delicious books. Have you read any of his?


Anuradha Goyal said...

Reminds me of my post on book stores in Bangalore...still the most read post on my blog after years...

Pankaj Saksena said...

Only good thing about this blog is its pictures. Soofi certainly has an eye for a snap.

Bruce Palling said...

My favourite bookshop in Northern India (Giggles in Madras and the Strand in Bombay were other favourites). Recently my son was working in a kitchen in Rajasthan so I rang KD to see if he could send him some titles- not only did he do so, but said not to worry paying until my next visit to India!