A scooter-riding bookseller has served Kolkata better than Amazon could ever hope to

Chandrima Pal

If a book has been printed, and is in circulation in even the remotest part of the world, chances are, Tarun Kumar Shaw will be able to get it for you. Be it a banned title, a rare tome, the latest edition of a prestigious science journal, Tarun-da, as he is popularly known in Kolkata, knows how to sniff out that book you want from under a pile of rubbish or email trail half way around the planet. Once the prize is in his hands, he will roll out his trusted two wheeler to ride to wherever you are – at your desk, at the Golf Club, or at the airport lounge – to personally deliver it to you. Commission on every sale depends on the challenges of the Holy Grail.

For more than three decades now, Tarun Shaw has been running what is possibly the only one of its kind personal book home delivery service in Kolkata. From the secured offices of leading media houses, to the corporate offices, the impenetrable Alipore and Ballygunj bungalows to the hallowed libraries of the academic institutions, Shaw has an all-access pass. Rather, he is the all-access pass and can reach where Amazon cannot – into the proud Bengali’s very cluttered headspace.

Ever since his father, Gopal Lal Shaw, wound up his tenure at Dey and Brothers, a bookstore in what used to be the Book Range in New Market, Shaw has been personally delivering books to every client in the city. He has been a particularly familiar and welcome sight in newspaper offices, carrying cases full of books that cover everything from science, politics, fascism ( a popular obsession, he says), general knowledge and literature.

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In a quiet room in a quiet house, painted in loud pop colours, Tarun-da recapped his extraordinary life as an itinerant bookseller in the city that has been home to two Nobel Laureates, several Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith awardees. It began with his father, who realised almost four decades ago that traditional bookstores would disappear, but a book lover will still want to read.

“It was to reach out to the diehard reader, and his old clients, that my father decided to start this door-to-door bookselling service,” said Shaw, 53. Calcutta was still reading voraciously at that time, and business flourished. “Our USP was our ability to procure imported newspapers and journals within days, sometimes hours,” explained Shaw about how the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, the various science and literary journals became a part of their repertoire. The Shaws were also canny businessmen and realised that siting on unsold inventory did not make sense. “We only procure on demand. Where is the space to stock books?”

An avid reader, Shaw also perfected the art of reading his client’s mind. “I have always loved talking to people about books. And once I have spent some time with anyone, I get a sense of what he or she would like to read. Next time we meet, I would suggest 10 books out of which, I guarantee you, the client will like at least one.”

As work began to expand, Shaw’s elder brother joined the team, though Shaw-junior remained the most visible face of the book business, traversing the city, carrying a dozen odd books every day. That this was a successful business model became evident when others began to try out something similar. But the Tarun-da had an upper hand, and others fell by the wayside.

“I have known legendary editors such as MJ Akbar and Vir Sanghvi,” he said. “The latter especially was extremely generous and introduced me to some of the biggest business families who are now my clients. I enjoy a certain rapport with everyone and they trust me...” He was interrupted by calls from clients, one of whom wanted him to suggest a book to gift at a sacred thread ceremony, and another who wanted something on Swami Vivekananda.

Shaw’s relationship with the ABP Group, the media house that publishes The Telegraph, is special. There have been times when Aveek Sarkar, editor emeritus of the group, has called him in the dead of night to request for a rare title, or a special thesaurus, and Shaw has delivered. The employees too have developed a bond with him. Shaw sells everything from Sidney Sheldon to Andre Gide. He does not judge. The thrill, for him, has been in the chase. “I love challenges,” he said. “Even when Satanic Verses was banned, I got several copies of the book. It took time, but I did it.”

He prefers to sell only English and Bengali books because, in his words, “no one reads books in any other language here”.

For the longest time, the city that has had a very special relationship with the written word had a very special place in its heart for the man who showed up with something or the other of interest. While College Street now lives on textbooks and nostalgia, there are hardly any bookstores of consequence left in the city, and Shaw refused to blame the decline on the internet. “It is us,” he said. “One generation gave up reading. But younger people are moving back to books. Kindle could not wipe it out. But why have we not been able to produce any writer of consequence after say a Sunil Gangopadhyay [one of Bengal’s most respected authors]. Why are Paulo Coelho, Jeffrey Archer failing to produce bestsellers?”

Last chapter

Of all the editors he has sold books to, Shaw had the most engaging conversations with the late editor of the ABP Group’s film magazine and noted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh. “I remember, every time I walked in, he would literally throw everything away from his desk to make room for the books that I carried with me. I have not met anyone who was so obsessed with reading.” After his untimely death, Ghosh’s collection of 1,500 books were gifted to the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. According to Shaw, most of those books were bought from him.

Shaw misses these associations. “It is not work. I have no problems selling you a book and walking away. It is business after all. But it breaks my heart to see a new book lying in a forgotten corner. I used to enjoy going back to my clients to discuss the book. I looked forward to these invigorating, stimulating conversations. I have had clients who call me home point to a wall and say: Isko Kitabon Se Bhar Dijiye! Not just any kind of books, they want leather-bound, gold-embossed books as a status symbol.” Shaw also blamed Bengali soaps for weaning the once fiercely well-read Bengali homemaker off books. “In the afternoons, after lunch, women would retire with a novella, a literary magazine or even a mythological book. Now it is just crap on TV.”

Even in the institutes, money spent annually on procuring rare titles, world class journals, are not actually realised because “not a page is turned”.

Shaw’s son works in Singapore, but he acknowledges his role in helping him reach out to publishers around the world. “I studied in a Bengali medium school. I am not tech savvy either. But my son started tracking down publishers and established a global network which I am still enjoying. He helped me tremendously to expand our business.” But neither his brother’s children, nor his son are interested in taking over the reins of the business. It is not as if Shaw is keen to see it continue either. “The whole business worked on trust, familiarity. People see my face and I put my personal equity out there every day over the past 30 years. We hired a couple of people to deliver newspapers, magazines, but not the books. That is special. It had to be me delivering them to those who waited for them. And it ends with me.”