The Legacy of Bookkeeping

By Shubha Bhatt 

Approaching the year’s end, I’ve begun brainstorming gift ideas for a few close friends and family. Last year, I created calendars for some friends in Delhi, containing visuals from my initial time in the city. The idea was inspired by a collection of calendars I encountered at a bookstore around this time last year. Over time, one consistent item on my gift list has grown to be books, although picking the perfect title remains a considerable challenge.  

On one such occasion this year, I was in search of two specific titles as gifts to one of my professors right before I graduated. Although I wished to personally visit a bookstore to acquire them, my schedule during those exam days didn’t allow for it.  Upon a friend’s suggestion, I decided to contact Bahrisons Booksellers via Instagram to inquire about the availability of the titles. In no time, Mithilesh Ji was coordinating my order for one of the books while consistently updating me on the shipment progress and simultaneously checking with other Bahrisons stores in the city regarding the availability of the second title. I received the book at my place within a couple of days. 

Bahrisons Booksellers 1977

Bahrisons Booksellers, now a double-storeyed establishment in Khan Market, has been delivering books up to the doorsteps of its customers all over the city for at least the last 50 years, recalls Mr Anuj Bahri Malhotra, who has been running the store after his father, Mr Balraj Bahri Malhotra. “Every bookshop, anywhere in the world, would deliver books to you at home. We had a set of staff dedicated to offering this additional service. We would even have the books sent to the customers if they selected the books at the store but couldn’t carry them back. And we never charged for it,” adds Anuj reminiscing about the long-standing tradition. The bookstore started in 1953 as a small shop within the confines of the then “refugee market” or what has grown to become Khan Market. The neighbourhood is named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan who helped families affected by partition acquire shops, ensuring they could rebuild their livelihood. 

Anuj in the shop, 1988-89

Anuj joined his father in 1979 at the Khan Market store, the oldest and the smallest of all outlets now. But visits to the bookstore were an everyday ritual ever since his childhood. “My training started as a peon, that’s the only way I can put it. I used to study at the Air Force School and the bookstore was within walking distance from there. I would come to the store after school and spend the other half of my days cleaning the shelves, and wind up by delivering books on my bicycle.”

With time, the space in and around the bookstore has evolved in ways other than its magnitude. Anuj’s wife, Mrs Rajni tells us that the store had a different touch to it when she joined back around 1987. “We used to have a stationery table just here where we’re sitting (the corner right in front of the cashier counter.) An old, wooden cabinet with a glass lid showcased a variety of pens as the section was organised and managed solely by an elderly individual named Uday Singh. He was the only one who seemed to find his way around the space and was always here, so much so that people used to think that he was the owner of the store. He actually came as a helper with my mother-in-law after her marriage. However, he faced health issues later in life, and the stationery desk faded away with his demise.” 

It’s surreal how several visuals can accumulate to ignite new meanings for a narrative. As a young boy, Mr Bahri would sell pens at Chandni Chowk to earn a living after the family fled their hometown near Lahore in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition. In a way, the stationery desk housing a collection of pens, which lived on at the store until years after its establishment, served as a testament to enduring times, thereby bearing signs of the store’s humble beginnings. Mr Anuj highlighted his father’s enthusiasm and commitment towards being a bookseller, acknowledging that while the book trade may not have been highly lucrative, it was a distinctively respectable profession. 

Something that continues to be unbelievably true for bookselling, he emphasises, is that you don’t have to be literate to step into the trade. “Book distributors often recognise books not by their title but by the colour of their covers. For instance, one can hear them say “Woh parso jo biology ki laal wali book aayi thi na, woh de dena inhe.” (“Give them the biology book in the red cover that arrived the day before yesterday.”) This holds true for any bookstore you go to, right from Bungalow Road, Chandni Chowk, Nai Sarak or anywhere else.” Staff members like Mithilesh ji who were compelled to leave education mid-way to earn a livelihood have been motivated to continue learning within the walls of the bookshop. Having served at Bahrisons Booksellers for over thirty years, he reminisces how the store was renowned for its intriguing collection of nonfiction books and political memoirs back in the day. 

Balraj and Anuj at the bookshop

Bahrisons Booksellers has expanded its presence over time to other localities around Delhi and has stores actively running at Saket, Gurugram, and Vasant Kunj. Additionally, they operate one store each in Kolkata and Chandigarh. According to Rajni, the readership in Delhi possesses a distinctive character, with a notable presence of academic readers. However, customer preferences vary depending on the specific location of the store. For instance, the collection displayed at the front of the mall store in Vasant Kunj is different, where there are high chances of more spontaneous purchases. 

Reserving a small corner for author book signings in the post-Covid era speaks volumes about the adaptations independent bookshops undertake to explore fresh opportunities. Mrs Rajni further elaborates that the art of bookselling demands directing efforts towards meeting the needs of the customers. “Our USP at Bahrisons has always revolved around providing personalised service to our customers. One may think that it’s a bookstore after all, that you may go inside, make a purchase and come out. But apparently, there’s so much more that goes into getting that book on the shelf.”

Having spent more than two decades in the field, Rajni is well aware of the nuances that need to be addressed at every step. So many hands touch a book, right from the press to the publisher and the distributor to finally reach the shelf over here. Moreover, her team consistently strives to respond to the excitement that builds up around the release of a specific book. The influx of calls, Instagram messages, and inquiries from in-store customers indicates that people are waiting for a book, and they make it a priority to procure it. It’s a thrilling experience for her to simply chase a book that way. For example, she got a new Jeffrey Archer book on the day of the interview and ensured that it has been displayed on the window for passers-by to notice.

According to her, there are certain customers who visit the bookstore every single day which makes her wonder why someone would visit a bookstore daily. These individuals are already well-acquainted with the layout of the store, the contents of the shelves, and the latest additions. Some head directly to the “new releases” section, while others come in search of a specific book they’ve heard about. Many times, customers engage in conversations, seeking opinions from fellow readers about the book they’re considering. In the midst of it all, there might be a regular author present, signing copies. Interestingly, even those unfamiliar with the author might opt for a signed copy at such moments. Rajni has encountered her fair share of surprises too. Recently, she engaged in a conversation with one of the main leads of ‘Made In Heaven’ who dropped by the store one morning. She tells us that she gets to meet several such people, all of whom are genuinely pleasant and ordinary individuals. And she strongly believes in providing a private and welcoming space for them when they visit the bookstore. 

The bustling environment of the bookstore makes for a dynamic atmosphere that seems to have a life of its own. The interactions and experiences that unfold there transform the space into a community hub built over a shared enthusiasm for literary work. The independent bookstores have given life to Khan Market in ways more than one. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the neighbourhood is held together by a string of the written word. There used to be around eight bookstores in the area around 1987 including Tharia Ram & Sons, Timeless Book Gallery, Faqir Chand And Sons, Full Circle Bookstore, Atma Ram, The Bookshop, Bahrisons Booksellers and more. The very presence of the independent bookshops have vividly shaped the cultural landscape of Khan Market. 

At The Remnant Archive, a notable project on our horizon for the upcoming year involves a neighbourhood mapping initiative. We aim to delve into the fascinating dynamics of how the surroundings of a community have contributed to shaping its evolving nature over the passage of time. When asked about how the bookstore has soaked in the changes in Khan Market over the passing years, Rajni promptly replied, “Don’t you think the time has stood still in the bookstore?” She elaborates, “Over the years, the market has evolved. Some brands and stores that were cherished have closed down. People often inquire about the music shop that once stood here, offering a diverse range of music records, cassettes, instruments, and equipment. There used to be an old-fashioned chemist with high ceilings, exuding a vintage and rustic charm. (Pauses and greets a customer, “Hello! Good to see you after such a long time!”) Many such stores that were iconic to the market have also shut down possibly due to soaring rents, financial challenges, or because they couldn’t keep pace with the current market trends. 

As for the bookstores, there have been numerous in Khan Market and all of us were thriving. Even now, the presence of other bookstores in the vicinity never poses a threat. We maintain a strong rapport with each other. Given the surge in e-commerce services, all of us are aware of the responsibilities we carry with our roles, promising our customers good service and accountability. We might take some time but in situations where a book is unavailable, we take it upon ourselves to locate it and ensure timely delivery. Surviving in such times is undoubtedly challenging, so there’s always that mutual respect and admiration among us for each other. When I write to a publisher with a concern, I always try to emphasise its impact on all independent bookstores. I refrain from making it specific to Bahrisons and instead advocate for all of us.”

Through its many endeavours, Bahrisons Bookstores stands out to be what we like to call in our team “keepers of human connection.” It is here that individuals from the city and wide across have bonded over either books, or in their company. Where else does time rush by like it does in a bookstore like Bahrisons. The timelessness of the store at Khan Market and the familiarity that holds its shelves fosters a sense of community and belongingness for anyone walking through its door. Standing as a cultural landmark for the last seventy years, the bookstore has grown to become a living repository, safely storing collective memories that transcend generations. Moreover, it continues to nurture a love for reading within the community, thereby cultivating a legacy of bookkeeping through its unwavering acts of resilience and hope. 

“It has been a great life. I’ve learnt so much in the trade.”, Anuj remarks, handing out glass bottles of ittar to Shubhangi and me, urging us to read his daughter’s work on fragrances and memory. 

However, Anuj, captivated by the world of thrillers, reminisces about his youthful years spent engrossed in Perry Mason novels in a store corner. “One thriller equals ten literary works for a publisher. It’s astonishing how authors in this genre can keep you hooked for 900 pages.”

We spoke to him around his workspace on the second floor when he had just arrived for the day’s work and could be captured in his element. For readers of thrillers, he highly recommends ‘I Am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes, a copy of which he generously gifted to Shubhangi, affirming that within every bookseller resides an avid reader.