Monday, 27 October 2014

Smokers Corner: the old sentimental bookshop

This afternoon, I was to meet my wife for lunch near her office in South Bombay, not far from my own. Since I reached early I thought I’d visit an old book haunt nearby called Smokers Corner. I hadn’t been there in over two years. I was saddened by the state of one of the city’s oldest secondhand bookshops, located in the foyer of a five-storey building.

Suleiman Botawala, who founded Smokers Corner in 1959 and who also owned the building, passed away a few years ago. He was an old pro when it came to fiction. He knew his books and their authors as well as he knew his own date of birth, maybe even better. Journalists and artists frequented his shop. He was proud of the books he offered. A large part of my nineties collection came from Smokers Corner. He could spot a serious book reader from the book requests he got. The last time I met Suleiman, he lamented that the present generation did not read books. He was always busy tidying his shelves and replacing books. It was a reassuring sight. 

Now his family is running Smokers Corner but it’s no longer the same. The ‘bookish’ atmosphere is missing. There is no pattern to the books on display. Worse still, there is no one to talk books with. The place is managed by hired hands. I think a part of the books died with Suleiman Botawala.

The sight of empty bookshelves must be the reason why I didn’t feel like buying a first-edition illustrated hardback of The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987) by Australian writer Colleen McCullough, famously known for The Thorn Birds (1977). The book was in mint condition and cost Rs.50 (almost a dollar). On my way out I spotted a few good books, both paperbacks and hardbacks, and I might go back there someday, especially since I confirmed that the bookshop wasn't closing down.

Back in office I read about The Ladies of Missalonghi on the internet and instantly regretted not buying it. The novel, set in the small town of Byron in the Blue Mountains of Australia just before World War I, tells the story of Missy Wright and the Hurlingford family. It is said to resemble The Blue Castle (1926) by L.M. Montgomery. Since I have read neither, I can’t say anything. The cover art and the black-and-white illustrations inside are by artist Peter Chapman.

Next time I visit an old bookshop, I leave my sentiments behind.

14 comments:

  1. man you hate to hear of someone like that passing on. So few people seem to really enjoy book chatter.

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    1. Charles, the owner of Smokers Corner knew his books so well that he used to surprise me with some excellent recommendations.

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  2. Great post, ditto Charles' comments. We don't have anything like that anymore in our town, though I'm probably part of the problem - with my Amazon shopping.

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    1. Col, thank you. We still have a few used bookshops, mostly on the footpaths, that I frequent for old paperbacks. Otherwise the secondhand book trade is on the verge of extinction.

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  3. We have a bookstore like that near us. He is only open on Saturdays now which is such a shame because he has an amazing collection. Especially books on Detroit and Michigan. But also lots of great old novels.

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    1. Patti, great old novels is what I'm always looking for. Over the years I have collected some fine used novels from the mid- to late-20th century.

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  4. Thanks the charming reminiscence Prashant - and I really want to read that story as I was in the Blue Mountains in July and fell in love with the place (like everybody else I dare say).

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    1. Sergio, you are welcome. I picked up THE LADIES OF MISSALONGHI and put it back on the shelf. I liked the cover and the blurb promised a good story. I have read a couple of books by Nevil Shute set in Australia, one of them in the outbacks.

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  5. I bought The Ladies of Missalonghi as a student back in the 'eighties. Its publication caused a big stink in Canada, with charges of plagiarism making headlines. I wish I could say where I weigh in on the matter, but I still haven't got around to reading it (or The Blue Castle, for that matter).

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    1. Brian, I read about the plagiarism issue but kept it out as I hadn't read either of the novels.

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  6. Interesting thoughts on used book sellers and the love of books in general, Prashant. Although we have lost ALL the chain bookstores in our town, we have a wonderful independent bookstore and several used bookstores. The used bookstores may not be full of chat about books, but they are good resources, and we are lucky.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. Smokers Corner used to be one of the best secondhand bookshops that also sold new books for less than half the price.

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  7. Sad about the bookshop - so few left now. I have read the Ladies of Missalonghi, and I did enjoy it, and particularly liked the fact that it was very short, unlike some of her other bestsellers. Worth a dollar I think....

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    1. Moira, I'll probably pick it up the next time I visit the bookshop. They had some other good books too.

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