A Bookshop dies: a paean to Manney’s
I growed up, like Topsy, in libraries and bookshops.
Besides the British Council Library (Motto: ‘Truth Always Triumphs’) where my father was the librarian, it is the bookshops of Poona that were the long suffering witnesses to the sputters and spurts of my pubescence. One of the most visited was Manney’s Booksellers next to Westend Cinema (English movies, soda fountain) at Camp. And now, it is shutting down.
Bookshops, like Irani Cafes, seem to have a way of doing this, blindsiding your comfortable memories and leaving them frayed and crotchety. Manney’s (the anglicised ‘Mani’s’, after its owners) is (for a short while now) a cavernous bookstore of current bestsellers and oddities and rarities that one can safely get lost in for an afternoon. In its bowels, I graduated from the vast collection of comics (GoldKey and Indrajal) and children’s books (especially the Three Investigators Mystery Series, ghost authored, but hosted by Alfred Hitchcock) to Alistair MacLean's oeuvre of war novels and contemporary thrillers (where I read my first swear words, and was thrilled to learn their spellings) to a completely eclectic set of reading habits, foraging rather than finding new stuff to read.
Manney’s was the first port of call, though not the only one. Around the corner from Manney’s were the Modern Book Stall and the Express Book Stall, both on East Street; while the Utkarsha and Popular were both at the Deccan. Each was different from the other, so visiting them all one after the other, browsing, not necessarily buying, was as ritualistic as temple darshan. Manney’s offered the largest collection, its employees tolerated, yet frowned upon my frequently darkening its doorstep (Free Reading Not Allowed). Manney’s has bookshelves upon bookshelves- travel, the English language, the Classics, novels, books on spirituality, philosophy, cinema, music and uniquely, a section on the military. Presumably it caters to the extended presence of Armed Forces folk in that part of Poona, the Southern Command being nearby, but also the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla and the Armed Forces Medical College. Then the shelves peter out, un-categorized yet fun to delve into. I have always found that the best bookshops are the ones without direction. But then maybe Manney’s had imprinted on me in my impressionable years.
These are the institutions that landmark your life, that you take for granted will always be there. And yet, after nearly forty years of browsing, I did feel that bookshops like these remained behind the times as the world moved on. It is not that monster bookshops (a huge Landmark store is just across the road) now dominate the book buying scene, nor that online reading and online buying are killing them. It is simply that these single proprietor bookshops never developed a warm relationship with their customers, never created the ambience for an extended stay and never made offers that bibliophiles could never refuse. This standoffish, take-it-or-leave-it attitude lingered on even after the challenges to their former monopolies loomed large.
I have my own Manney’s story: I have mentioned browsing and not buying; one could not afford most books in the shop. Once, in the late eighties, while still in college, voraciously skimming books on rock ‘n roll, I found a freshly minted paperback of ‘20 Years of Rolling Stone: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been’ edited by Jann S. Wenner. Its pristine cover and chewed-off corner delighted and enticed, and equally quickly disappointed as it was way too dear for my collegeboy allowance. I left, feeling all the worse because I had riffled through its pages and it offered everything a rock-philiac would have liked to get jiggy with.
Twenty years later, the book was still there, on the same set of shelves, now yellowed, considerably worse for the wear, thumbed by strangers, never owned. Between the two decades, each time I visited Manney’s, I gave the book a darshan and a wistful caress. God knows, the book is probably still there. I wondered each time: just what kind of turn-over policy did the proprietors have for their old stock?
I do not vouch for this, but I never heard of Manney’s ever having a sale. Now, as the shop-owners have announced, when Manney’s will finally shut shop by the end of March, they will organise a ‘Grand Sale’ with discounts of twenty percent. Twenty percent. Bookshops like the Strand in Bombay offer a discount of twenty percent on All new books, and considerably more on older ones. Life goes on in these bookshops; books keep changing, the shelves are constantly refreshed. The sale events of bookshops like Strand are looked forward to with anticipation; when you can buy books in buckets. Little wonder then a shop like Manney’s, much loved, can also leave you in a state of perplexity.
Its old world charm and old school obduracy notwithstanding, I am sorry to see Manney’s go. The vast space it occupies and the advantage of its location in Poona Camp makes it real-estate to be sought after. I wonder what will replace it though. Cafe Coffee Day? Barista? KFC?
Another bookshop? Naah, unlikely.