Mayank Austen Soofi takes us to meet some of Delhi's most cherished bookshop attendants.
He has hardly any books in his house but he is known to many Delhiites who live in book-lined homes. Mithilesh Singh, a 39-year-old college dropout from Bihar, is the floor manager at Bahrisons Booksellers in New Delhi’s Khan Market. The landmark book store is patronized by the Capital’s famous people, and all of them turn to Singh on literary matters. “Mithilesh is a genius,” says author William Dalrymple. “I love the way he knows about any book I ask for and can generally find it in seconds even if it involves shinning up some rickety stepladder or rootling around in some attic. If not, he knows where he can get it within 24 hours. If all bookshopwallahs were like him, then Amazon and Flipkart would never have got a toe in the market.”
The joy is deeper when the book store owner gives you a smile of recognition. But to have an affable bookshop attendant more informed than you on new titles and who helps you search for the desired authors is beyond expectation. That is exactly how Singh delights book lovers every day. The moment politician-lawyer Kapil Sibal, one of the store’s many VIP regulars, pushes open the glass door, he asks for “Mithilesh” to show him the latest stock. It’s the same with many others who are in a hurry and want to browse only those recent releases that suit their reading taste. The most commonly uttered name in the store is not “Rushdie” or “Rowling”, but “Mithilesh”.
The grave-looking owner of the eclectic Fact & Fiction book store in Basant Lok market in Vasant Vihar is rarely seen smiling but his assistant Ravi Vyshumpayan’s relaxed demeanour puts one at ease. Full Circle at Khan Market has the friendly Reji Varghese Joseph (he was trained in Bahrisons) as well as the elderly Jolly Sabharwal, who pleasantly surprised the regulars after returning to her job in July after a five-year break (she appears stern but is charming once you break the ice).
The Book Shop in Jor Bagh suffered a tragedy in May with the death of its founder, K.D. Singh, who used to regale the faithful with stories of his college days in Delhi. The regulars continue to visit the shop not only to bask in the soothing company of Singh’s wife Nini, but also because of the obliging Sohan Singh, the quiet-natured doorman-cum-attendant. Early this year, on his store’s Facebook page, K.D. Singh left a sentimental note, saying, “Sohan Singh has been with The Bookshop for fifteen years. He knows where every. single. book. is shelved. And even though he can’t read in English if you are a regular customer he knows the kind of books you like and is happy to point you to books that you might enjoy. He is such an integral part of The Bookshop…”—just as Mithilesh Singh is to Bahrisons.
“As long as my father was active in the shop,” says Malhotra, referring to the store’s elderly founder who retired five years ago, “I used to do exactly what Mithilesh does today. He exercises the same freedom of decision-making.” Shooting a glance at his star staffer, Malhotra says, “Both of us have been loyal to each other and both of us respect each other’s position.”