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Wednesday June 29, 2022

Mecca of Learning – Used Book Shops of Kolkata

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Epic and Dakshini – the South Calcutta treasure troves

I live near Deshapriya Park in south Kolkata. When I was in school there was a used books shop near Lake Market called ‘Epic’. It was renowned for its collection of used books and was run by an elderly gentleman. I still remember him because he used to lend books to young readers like me, for a small amount of money. He was a hearty persona, and many – I am certain – would recall how he recommended certain books to readers. We were all in the age bracket where Mills & Boon romances held the rage. But Epic had a huge repository of books to help us overcome and override this rage. From Epic, I used to borrow my Nancy Drew and Famous Five books.

Another bookshop, also situated at Deshapriya Park, was the Dakshini bookstore. Buyers stood on the pavement in order to browse over their favourite books. The legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray was also a patron of this shop. Those were the days when plush and cosy bookstores like the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street or Stori on Elgin Road, were yet to come into existence. Those were the days when books were the sole reason for entering a bookshop. 

In an interview, the Jnanpith awardee, writer Amitav Ghosh was asked the question, “What book do you read the most?” Ghosh had replied, “The Oxford English Dictionary.”

A bookshop ‘with a difference’ comes to my mind now. Subarnarekha bookshop at Santiniketan, once run by the erstwhile member of the CPI, Indranath Mazumdar, is smaller in comparison to its other counterparts and compatriots in this field. Located near the Post office and within the campus area of the Visva Bharati University, Subarnarekha houses an enviable collection of both used and new books. It is the haunt of students, Ashramites and intellectuals from Kolkata.

College Street Boipara

The Boipara on College Street is a part of sepia-tinted nostalgia. Every Kolkatan, who had been to college and university, would be able to recall their visits to this heritage place in the global map of the literary world. Leave aside the big shops like Dasgupta & Co., Chuckravertty & Chatterjee etc. The small stalls lining the walls of the Presidency College, store jettisoned books. These range from text books to novels and even best sellers.

I frequented Boipara right from my school life. If textbooks are here, can story books be far behind? Buying books there almost always ended up with a visit to the legendary Indian Coffee House that served infusion (black coffee) in small white porcelain cups. The white uniform clad stewards still reminiscent of the days of the Raj.

In recent years, about a year or so ago, a crowd-pulling phenomenon called Load The Box, happened in places around the city. Readers and bibliophiles will be cognizant of these events, if they are active followers of updates on social media platforms. The event was unique in more ways than one. The driving force behind organising such an event was obviously, a love for and of books. There were three cardboard boxes, priced at different rates, which one could literally cram with books of their choices from rows upon rows of used books. In one box alone, one could arrange up to thirteen books! 

A good dictionary is an author’s best friend

The stalls near Gariahat also stock up on a horde of well-thumbed, but nonetheless priceless, editions. Compared with those at College Street, these of course act as second fiddle. The College Street Boipara shops on the pavement adjacent to Presidency College and Calcutta University are meant for fiction lovers. On the other hand, the shops at Gariahat are meant for text books and dictionaries. In an interview, the Jnanpith awardee, writer Amitav Ghosh was once asked, “Which book do you read the most?” Ghosh had replied, “The Oxford English Dictionary.” Indeed the OED is the best companion for most writers.

We were all in the age bracket where Mills & Boon romances held the rage. But Epic had a huge repository of books to help us overcome and override this rage. From Epic, I used to borrow my Nancy Drew and Famous Five books.

To some, the odour of old books is the best perfume in the world. But as far as I am concerned, as soon as a new book arrives on my desk, the first thing that I do is smell it. Lady Macbeth’s speech, in Shakespeare’s play, comes to my mind: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

The Bard of Avon

We had made our Europe trip almost two decades ago. On a rain-drenched day – so much a characteristic of British weather – we had visited Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. I often wonder as to whether Shakespeare’s gone outdated by now? His works are still analysed and read as texts in schools and colleges the world over. Sometimes as students we couldn’t afford the first hand editions of the Arden texts and bought the second hand editions of the same. At least one visit – to the second hand bookshops – becomes almost mandatory for all students of Literature. 

That being said, the second hand and used bookshops of Kolkata, are the Mecca for bibliophiles and book connoisseurs.

Image courtesy: Pixabay

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