DISCOVER STORIES AMIDST THE DUST AT SMOKER’S CORNER BOOKSTORE
Smoker's Corner is an assuming bookstore in Fort that has been around since 1954. The best part about visiting this bookstore is that you never know what treasure you will find for a mere 50 rupees.
Smoker’s Corner Bookstore, 4A, Botawala Chambers, Sir PM Road, Fort, Mumbai 400 001. Phone: 022 22164060
READ JOANNA LOBO'S STORY
A leering Shah Rukh Khan greets me as I enter the foyer of Botawala Chambers in Fort. The buzz from outside – vehicles honking, people gossiping at the cigarette store on the corner and pedestrians walking – instantly recedes. At the same time, the temperature appears to drop a degree. This, of course, has nothing to do with the actor or the women he shares a magazine cover with.
I’m at Smoker’s Corner Bookstore, a place that gets its name from the sailors who used to come by to stock up on tobacco and cigarettes at the tobacconist just outside the building. Now, there are just ordinary people smoking around the corner. If I breathe in deeply enough, I can smell the cigarette smoke beyond the mustiness.
I’m at a bookstore, but it is unlike any other store or library. There’s no board pointing out the name of the place or offering titles at a discount; there’s no one to welcome us into the space; there’s no registry of what’s available. There’s a collection of dusty wooden shelves and stands decorating the lobby of the building and two small rooms at the side. It appears as if someone just took a collection of books and hastily laid them out on shelves and stands. It’s hot and stuffy.
It wasn’t always this way.
The bookstore has become a part of the wall, unseen by those who see it daily but rich in character for others like me.
The book Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle shares a note about the origin of the bookstore. In 1954, the proprietor Suleman Botawala took over the tobacco shop and filled it with books, turning it into a library. Botawala was pursuing his passion for books and reading, and over the years, built up a steady clientele of readers. He passed away in 2009 and since then, the place has lost its sheen and presumably, its customers.
The available books number to less than 1,000 and are a motley collection. They’re scattered across two wooden stands in the middle, glass shelves hugging the walls, and two little rooms (alcoves) on the side. Some of them are tied with thread, to hold their pages together and to keep them from falling off the stands.
My favourite part about visiting this bookstore is that I never know what I will find, what treasure I can take back home for a mere 50 rupees. Finding that one book, however, necessitates my walking through all the sections, combing through all the titles. The fashion and news magazines are the only ones with up-to-date issues; everything else is older than me, and secondhand. There’s a selection of picture books on the British royal family (back when Princess Diana was part of it), fairytales for children, a Dr. Who collection, Bible studies, magazines with advice on enameling, raising a child, and being a good granny, and unusual self help books such as How to Eat Worms.
My favourite part about visiting this bookstore is that I never know what I will find.
As with any other old bookstore, I spy an assortment of romantic titles, with authors’ names in embossed gold and postcard pictures of fields and castles promising compelling love stories. There’s a nice nostalgia section for ’90s kids like me with books on Destiny’s Child, the Olsen twins, former Bond girl Halle Berry, plus some Reader’s Digest back issues. I pick up a book called Foetal Attraction (reviews call it “screamingly funny”), the diary of Anakin Skywalker, and a mystery novel by the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard.
As I go through the books, people walk past me without a second glance. The bookstore has become a part of the wall, unseen by those who see it daily but rich in character for others like me. I try to imagine it as a buzzing place at one time, with readers crowding around shelves, eager to pick up the latest sports magazine or bestseller. It’s difficult, because Smoker’s Corner wears an air of neglect that’s hard to shake off.
Suleman’s son Zubair now looks after the store, as a way of remembering his father. He isn’t around when I visit but the man at the counter, who makes note of our purchases in a ledger, assures me that he does spend time here.
As we leave, my friend and I pause for a moment outside, trying to cool down. My friend lights up a cigarette. He is no sailor, but this seems like a fitting tribute for a bookstore indirectly dedicated to smokers.