One of TN Shanbhag’s favourite anecdotes was about how, in 1951, he was one of the few booksellers in the country to order 1,000 copies of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago.
Pasternak of course won the Nobel Prize soon after, and Shanbhag’s related favourite story was about how Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister of India, stopped by his shop at 10.30 one night in 1952 to pick up a copy. The prime minister bought another 21 books that night. Indeed, every regular at Strand was made to feel as important as a prime minister because nothing gave Shanbhag greater pleasure than people loving books.
For an indigent journalist scraping the barrel for a bit extra, Strand Book Stall was a haven. Mention a book you wanted to read and fabulous discounts were thrown at you.
Of course Strand and Shanbhag did this for all bookworms and there is no other bookshop in Mumbai, or maybe even the world, that envelopes you with a love and reverence for books the way Strand does.
And what a treasure trove.
A tiny space, shorn of all the gloss and fripperies we have come to associate with book shops, and yet Strand was packed with gems. And packed with people who knew and had read all those gems. There was no author you asked Shanbhag about whom he did not know. And in his absence, the other staff filled in. The last couple of years, Shanbhag, 85, had been ailing and so meetings had become unfortunately rare.
Mumbai is often - and perhaps even sometimes rightly - presented as a city of philistines. But Shanbhag was a city institution who broke all those myths. He and his shop towered above the world of books.
When Shanbhag spoke, everyone had to listen - sometimes reluctantly, but always with reverence. He was always on the side of the writer and the reader and worked his business around that. With his death, Mumbai has lost a very precious part of itself.
Strand Book Stall was founded by TN Shanbhag in November 1948. It started in Colaba, near the erstwhile Strand Cinema and shifted to its current location off PM Road, Fort, in 1954. It was the first bookshop in the world to offer a minimum 20% discount on all books.
TN Shanbhag was awarded the Padmashri in 2003 for 54 years of “enlightened book selling”. The award was presented by the then president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, also a Strand regular.