Thursday, October 22, 2009

city specks - the story of Select Bookshop

The amiable and witty Mr. K.K.S. Murthy, the face and voice of one of Bangalore’s oldest and iconic landmarks took around 20 of us down an enchanting memory lane on a pleasant Saturday evening earlier this month. It was part of the City Specks: Mapping Memories activity of the Jamming through October festival ( organized by Maraa (, a community media collective based in Bangalore

Born in 1930 to a bibliophilic father practising as a lawyer in Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh) who relocated with his family to Bangalore in 1944-’45, Mr. Murthy formally took over Select in 1977. However, he kept learning about the used book trade immensely while choosing, buying and shipping books from dealers and auctioneers in Paris and New York, (during his professional stints in nearby Spain and New Jersey) apart from those in Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai. (With a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Science, he worked as an aeronautical engineer in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and later with the Kirloskar group and private firms in the US). 

“Father would visit Bangalore at the mere receipt of a post card from any acquaintance in Bangalore about the arrival/availability of some secondhand books. Katherine Mansfield was among his favourite authors. I have seen people from Kerala carrying and selling books in baskets here”, said Mr. Murthy. His father Mr. K.B.K. Rao (Rao, a suffix acquired for being an Andhraite) who started Select in 1945 in an Irishman’s garage on Museum Road catered to eminent Bangaloreans like Sir C.V. Raman who had specific tastes. “When I saw a hardcover with colour photographs of Jaichamarajendra Wodeyar in one of the street side Parisian bookstores, I sent it to my father to gift it to Sir C V Raman who was patronized by the Maharaja”. 

After quitting his initial engineering job in New Jersey, Mr. Murthy joined Simon and Schuster, a book publisher and warehouse as an inventory controller (after completing a course in the subject). There he observed primarily Spanish speaking youngsters in the basement meticulously inspecting English and other books and LP records and rejecting those with the slightest defect. He admired their high standards and bought many of those with minor flaws for US $200 as there was no disposal process. “I used to sack mail books from New York and while I used the Indian Embassy’s help to parcel them from Paris. Concerned about the expenditure, my father advised me to send only 1-2 copies per book”. 
He shared how Durga Book Stall in Russell Market with a stationery section on the ground floor had a fantastic used book collection on the first that was usually locked but was opened exclusively for them whenever required. Mr. Sait who still visits and supplies them ran a circulating library cum old books store near Coles Park but he primarily operates from his house now. 

Suma Ponnamma, a friend and regular since 1969 missed going to the shop only for a month although that seemed a long duration to her. A Canadian who started buying from them during Mr. Murthy’s father’s time still goes there. Historian and writer Ramchandra Guha, The Hindu’s Editor-in-Chief, N. Ram and former Karnataka governor Mr. T.N. Chaturvedi are among his long time customers. 

According to him, Select’s sales are declining probably because people are reading less, contrary to the common assumption that business is unaffected. Some of us wondered if digitization of books was another factor. “I only collect books and don’t read them. Also, I didn’t want to start a circulating library after seeing father’s challenges with it. But I always enjoyed watching movies like the Moon and Sixpence costing a few annas – most of the old the theatres are gone now!” Mr. Murthy added. When people asked his father how he could sustain his shop with only 3 assistants and also support his family, he would reply that he succeeded in educating and marrying his children off with just this business. 
Sanjay, Mr. Murthy’s son joined him in 1999 and they expanded to the first floor in 2002. Due to various reasons the store’s location changed to Malleswaram, Ulsoor (beside Lakseside Hospital) and M.G. Road before moving to the current and permanent space on Brigade Road Cross in the late 1970’s. Mr. Murthy also has a publishing business and contributes articles to the Times group of publications too. “I would like to publish a book of quotations soon and I have been collecting sayings in various languages for that”, he said. 

Select has acquired Coomaraswamy’s Rajput paintings from New York, 120 volumes of Asiatic Society’s publications from Kolkatta, Tamil works from Tiruchirapalli, red and green Penguins worth Rs. 750-1000. Some of the pictures adorning the walls are copies of Van Gogh's works. Apart from an annual sale of rare, out-of-print books in Bangalore, Select also participates in book fairs/exhibitions nationwide. When I merely mentioned possessing a few collections of literary and other masterpieces written by some of the world’s greatest and published by the Times of London, he delighted me by fetching a huge blue leather bound volume of the Times Literary Supplement and quickly narrated how he got hold of it. 

When Mr. Murthy first said, “I think I should stop now and let you all ask me questions. Otherwise, I can go on for a lot longer”, we urged him to continue his spell binding anecdotes. After nearly an hour and a half, we reluctantly ended the session promising to return for more...

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