“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King
…And literally so.
This story is about a humble man, a son, a husband, a father, and a bookseller – a bearer of magic on wheels.
A hot summer day.
Adults rushing for work, children rushing to schools.
The former has newspapers clasped between the fingers of their palms, the latter has backpacks hanging from their shoulders.
Amidst the narrow Kolkata streets is another man on his usual day at work. As he passes by the adults and the children on his scooter, their faces beam.
He comes bearing the one thing loved by them all…
In a quiet room coloured not in bright paint but in books with glistening covers, Tarun Kumar Shaw sits lost in thoughts.
His mind is filled with his clients’ demands.
Some of them wish to read a magazine, some, journals; while a few want to get their hands on a rare book written by an old English author.
Shaw has all their needs memorised, and along with his elder brother, he starts calling up his contacts who can get him in touch with international book sellers.
“Procuring rare books is tough work, but I try my best to fulfil all orders. No one should be stripped of the chance to read a good book,” said Shaw.
Thirty-four years ago, his father, Gopal Lal Shaw, started a bookstore called Dey and Brothers in Kolkata’s New Market. Ever since his father’s work wound up, Shaw took to personally delivering books in his scooter to every client in the city.
It’s been 32 years.
“After completing my graduation I didn’t take up a job and involved myself in the family business. I grew up around books, hence, was always inclined toward them,” he said.
Shaw’s warehouse is his home, and his workplace – the impenetrable streets of Kolkata which even giants like Amazon find it difficult to access.
Any individual, corporate, library or media house acquainted with Shaw knows that he is the one man they can rely on when it comes to literature.
His books are everywhere.
Most of the media houses in the city order books from him, he claims. Clubs, including Calcutta Club and Tollygunge Club, call him to fulfil the demands of their members.
The business is run by Shaw, his brother, and three others who help in the delivery. “Magazines and journals are guaranteed orders because people usually know what they want. But when it comes to books, they want to read the work of authors they haven’t heard of before. They ask for suggestions and this is when I get involved in long conversations with my clients about books from around the world,” said Shaw.
The magazines, journals and newspapers, are delivered by the three boys hired by him. But when it comes to books, he and his brother make sure that they themselves hand them over to the clients.
“It’s personal,” said Shaw.
Each day (and night) involves Shaw talking to his loyal clients who want to read a book but are unable to procure them from traditional bookstores.
Like a collector, Shaw finds it for them and makes the delivery on his scooter while charging them only for the book. In some cases when it takes too much effort to procure a book, Shaw asks for an extra charge.
“Our clients have been with us for years. We talk to them to acquaint ourselves with their interest. Once they place an order, I add a few books on my own based on what I feel they might enjoy. More often than not, they retain 2-3 books,” he said.
The family has all kinds of literature. But when it comes to rare books, they are either second or third hand and the clients are informed of the condition of the book before its sold to them. “If the pages are a little torn, or if a few lines are underlined in pen, we tell the customer,” said Shaw.
Going back 2-3 years in time, Shaw recalled how the popularity of Kindle and e-books had hampered the business.
“However, gradually people are again shifting toward hard books. Any publishing house which introduces a new book, surveys the area first and puts their books for sale basing on the demand. Even we have many clients who are Kindle users, but they still demand books,” revealed Shaw.
Shaw loves reading Jeffrey Archer novels, short stories and books on travelling. “I am surrounded by books and make sure that I know a little about which ever one I am selling,” he adds.
Shaw’s business works on trust and familiarity.
“It’s about love for books and giving people the chance to read,” he said.
His son is a computer engineering graduate and is currently working in Singapore. His brother’s son is a financial analyst in Bangalore.
Shaw knows that after him and his brother, the business will defunct. But he also knows that the work is about something more than money.
“If I wanted profits only, I could have opened a store where people choose the book they want, pay and leave,” he said. “But my business is so much more. Through these years, we have understood the taste of our clients and no one, after us, will be able to take over because they don’t know what our clients want.”
It started with his father and ends with him, believes Shaw.