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Losing and finding yourself in Premier bookshop

Before Church Street squandered its soul, it was home to an unassuming bookstore fronted by an affable, unassuming owner. Nestled in between a shady pub and another establishment I can’t care to recollect, it was a throwback to a bygone era when owners knew their patrons by name and politely enquired about their well being. It was a store that was oblivious to the world outside, not because it didn’t care, but because it really didn’t affect how it did business. 

When you entered, it was as if you were walking into an impending avalanche; of books that is. Shelves with fancy titles like ‘new age’, ‘fiction’ and ‘Indian writing’ to shepherd you in your search didn’t exist. Books arranged in alphabetical order? Sorry, try your luck someplace else. Each row of books was backed up by another layer and fishing out a book perched somewhere in the middle of second row was an art in its own right. Old timers were familiar with attempting to pull a book from the middle of a stack and have the entire stack come crashing down on their heads.

It must have been sometime in the early 90s when I was first set foot into the store and began an unapologetic love affair with books, and the store itself. Holidays were deemed incomplete without a visit and buying a book from elsewhere seemed like betrayal; so you would wait until the book found its way into the store. Before the advent of new age bookstores, it was what you call a no-frills store. No meditation music playing in the background, no couches to sit down and no café to order overpriced (and terrible) coffee or tea from. Two narrow passageways led you on the treasure hunt. A wobbly steel stool served as a search engine, if you were brave enough to get on it.

At the heart the store’s novelty was Mr.Shanbag, the owner. A man of few words, he always greeted you with his trademark smile and possessed an incomprehensible ability to fish out a book you asked for from a massive heap, dust it off and hand it to you. All bills were accompanied by a 15% discount - store policy. It was home to poets, writers, students and the man on the street who just walked in to buy a magazine and walked out an unofficial lifetime member.

If you haven’t already come to terms with the harshness of everyday life, the thanklessness, the drudgery and the seemingly impossible search to find fulfillment by trying to impress people you don’t like or waiting for Friday like a child waits for playtime, a store like this always made you feel like there was a kernel of goodness in the world. For when you entered, you left your worries behind and surrendered yourself to familiar territory.

Like most big corporations who change logos, philosophies and their souls in a bid to fool the world at large that they are constantly reinventing themselves to keep up with the times, while the same coterie at the round table gets richer at the expense of the rest of them who sacrifice sanity to make them richer, the store gave everyone an important management lesson – take care of the people and the balance sheet will take care of itself. Everything else is just a sideshow.

If you happen to find yourself on Church Street, don’t bother looking for the store. Premier bookshop shut down in March 2009, some 30 years since it first threw its doors open. I made my final homage a few weeks before Mr, Shanbagh bought down its shutters and with that, also a piece of history. Even the neighboring shady pub has long since shut.

It isn’t easy to describe what made Premier bookshop an institution. Was it the owner or the complete disdain for order? Or was it the unadulterated smell of books that hypnotized you from the moment you stepped in? It still remains a mystery after all these years. But every time I pass by, my heart skips a beat. And my mind goes back to simpler times when you stepped into Premier bookshop, met by Mr. Shanbag’s smile, bought more books than you could ever read, watched a movie in Plaza theatre and called it a day with ice cream at Lakeview milk bar.

For Premier bookshop was unlike any other - it was a bookstore with a story to tell.


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