Reading and the City: A building stands amidst swanky new showrooms, housing big brand retail stores in the Sadar Market of Agra, the decades old street market- a colonial legacy much like in many other erstwhile British administrated cities and towns of India. The building, a shop, painted in white with its name painted in big bold letters in red stands unchanged for as long as one can remember in an otherwise constantly changing market street which keeps getting makeovers, new outlets and novelty stores. Established in 1946 before a year of Indian independence, its name is as symbolic as it could get- Modern Book Depot.
The Modern Book Depot has evolved from a mere store into an icon of reading culture for the city. Started by two brothers late Kanwar Bhan and late Jeevan Ram, who came from the undivided Punjab before partition, the store began in a smaller capacity in the Sadar market which itself was only an assortment of few shops overseeing a huge field where British used to play polo matches. Over the years as the market evolved so did the shop. The Agra shop is now run by Kanwar Bhan’s son Bhushan Kumar and grandson Shivam. Members from the family also run shops with the same name in other cities like Kolkata, Bubhaneshwar and Siliguri as well.
Asked, if a book store is an unconventional choice for a generational family business, Bhushan replies “Interestingly most people who migrated during partition got engaged in the trade of books or publishing.” He adds, “We like this business. If today I rent this shop out I will be in much more profit but this shop is a good trade to be in.”
While most book stores in the city have come to be synonymous with academic books and reading material meant for competitive examinations, the reading culture in the city is not a lot to be excited about generally. As a feature in the city edition of the Hindi daily “Dainik Jagran” reports (1st Feb 2015), the city’s library is in utter shambles. The State run district library at 52 years of age, much younger than its commercial counterpart in Sadar market is in critical condition with cut off electricity and phone lines, broken furniture and yet unread invaluable books.
For its part the store has thrived mostly on the foreign clientele who throng the city of Taj Mahal. They buy books by not only Indian authors and publishers but also foreign ones. Featured in travel guides like India Norde (Trotamundos) (2006), Lonely Planet- Japanese (2009), Le Guide du Routard Inde du Nord (2011) and Trotter Noord-India (2013), the store becomes a stop for tourists from all around the world. In fact Bhushan has obtained photocopies of these mentions from these customers themselves and kept an archive.
Some of the mentions of ‘Modern Book Depot’: (L to R)- India Norte Trotamundos (2006), Trotter Noord- India (2013), Le Guide du Routard (2011).
As for the domestic clientele, as someone who has been observing the reading culture in the city over past many years, he suggests that there has not been a drastic increase in their clientele from the city itself but has observed a recent surge in readers from the younger generation, especially girls who are taking up to reading in a big way. Besides there are also families whose fourth generations still come to the store for their reading requirements.
Ironically being in the book trade for so long, the store owners themselves find it hard to keep abreast of all the literature. When asked he says, “Earlier we used to visit this shop as kids and pick up books. But now we are so busy in the business that any free time goes in keeping our books, inventories etc. We do keep track of latest authors and books but ourselves are not able to read them.”
Bigger cities can still boast of posh book stores in even more posh shopping malls owned by multi-outlet retail franchise and a flourishing e-commerce business around book selling. However what limited clientele exists among the reading community in the smaller cities is always at risk of being swept away by the online book trading sites, away from stores such as these. Yet the store exists and still caters to a variety of reading interests and proclivities ranging from bestsellers to classics, social commentaries to autobiographies, magazines to comics and more.
In rapidly receding public space dedicated to reading culture, such stores are an endangered species which still give you the thrill to go through the fresh smell and touch of new books before buying them and know the book store owners personally. In turn they establish a relationship with their customers and like an internet cookie algorithm never fail to recommend books suited to your taste, but only with a touch more personal. While Modern Book Depot remains a landmark for foreign tourists who come to the city of Taj, it also remains a rare and a significant landmark in the reading culture of the city. -Sumit