A leering Shah Rukh Khan greets me as I enter the foyer of Botawala Chambers in Fort, Mumbai. 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 and stock up on tobacco and cigarettes at the tobacconist just outside the building. Now, they’re just ordinary people smoking around the corner. If I breathe in deeply enough, I can smell the cigarette smoke beyond the mustiness.
This used to be a library but, there’s no board pointing out the name of the place or offering titles at discount; there’s no one to welcome us into the space; and there’s no
registry of what’s available. It’s just 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 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, given the empty shelves, its customers.
The available books number to less than a 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 keep their pages together and to keep them from falling off the stands.
My favourite part about visiting this bookstore is I never know what I will find, what treasure I can take back home for a mere Rs 50. Finding that one book, however, necessitates my walking through all the sections, combing through the titles. The fashion and news magazines are the only issues up to date editions; everything else is older than me, and secondhand. There’s a selection of picture books on the royal family (back when Lady Diana was alive and 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.
As with any other old bookstore, I spy an assortment of romantic titles, with author’s names in embossed gold and postcard perfect 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, Olsen twins, once upon a time Bond girl Halle Berry, and Reader’s Digest back issues.
As I go though the books, people walk past me, without a second glance. The place has become part of the wall, unseen by those who see it daily but rich in character for other like me. I try and 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 notes of our purchases in a ledger, assures me he does spends time here.
I pick up a book called Foetal Attraction whose reviews call it ‘screamingly funny’, the diary of Anakin Skywalker (in case I ever do decide to start reading Star Wars), and mystery novel by the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard.
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 fitting tribute for a bookstore indirectly dedicated to smokers.
Smoker’s Corner is situated at Botawala Chambers, Sir PM Road, Fort; call 2216 4060; closed on Sundays; prices start at Rs 30.
The story was written for and originally published in The City Story.