Be it The Satanic Verses, The Journals of Andre Gide, volumes of Encyclopedia of Religion by Mircea Eliade, or The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs — Tarun Kumar Shaw can get you most of the books you ask for, irrespective of how elusive or unavailable they might be.
At 53 years of age, Tarun is a familiar face among Kolkata’s bibliophiles, as their personal home delivery person for books.
Usually seen riding across the city on his scooter with over a dozen books, Tarun has been going door-to-door, delivering books to his clients for over three decades now. And it all started with an idea that his farsighted father, Gopal Lal Shaw came up with.
“We had a shop called Dey and Brothers, in New Market. About 35 years ago it struck my father that instead of buyers coming to the shop to purchase books, we should start taking books to their doorsteps. He felt that people will continue reading books even after traditional bookstores become a thing of the past. He discussed the idea with some of his clients who loved it and encouraged him to take it forward,” recalls Tarun, who was in college at that time.
Thus Gopal Lal started delivering books, house after house, riding across the city on his bicycle. Tarun finished his graduation two years later and joined the business. “At the time, Kolkata was not as crowded as it is today. Commuting on a bicycle was easy. But slowly, the traffic increased, and so did the demand for books. This was when we purchased our first scooter — a Luna of my father’s choice,” he laughs.
Today, Tarun runs the business with his elder brother Utsav Kumar Shaw and their choice of scooter has also changed over the years. They have a loyal client base of about 800 people who call Tarun with regular book orders ranging from those that are easily available online to those that are out of print in the country.
The unique thing about their business was, and has always been, their ability to procure rare books and magazines.
Tarun’s father used to deliver imported newspapers and journals like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Independent, etc. within days of publication, at an age when finding them in India was no piece of cake.
Tarun is well-known for a similar knack. He ensures that he delivers even the rarest of ordered books. Sometimes, that happens only after several phone calls and emails to publishers and suppliers across the globe.
Explaining the process, Tarun says that he starts by getting in touch with a book’s publisher if it is in print. If that does not work out, he uses his vast network to find which booksellers in the UK, US, Europe, etc. may have the book in stock.
“We have contacts with many booksellers in other countries who keep sharing their stock lists with us. I go through the lists, contact them, talk about the price and posting rates, and get the book.”
But what brings customers back to him even today when they have the option of ordering books with just a few taps on their smartphones? He does not know. “While many purchase books directly from online stores, we have loyal clients who have continued to order books over the years. And that’s all I know,” he says.
Even the advent of Kindle and other ebook readers does not make him sceptical about the scope of his business.
Picture for representation only. Source: Pixabay
And why should he be! He has, after all, been working with famous clients like the late Rituparno Ghosh (“I have never seen a reader as fine as him”, he says), Pratim Dasgupta, MJ Akbar, Vir Sanghvi, and many other eminent novelists and writers. He also supplies to media houses, corporate organisations, clubs and the High Court.
“There was a time in between when because of all the Kindle-craze our business was not going so well. But now, I am noticing that people are picking up the practice of reading hard copies again. I have many clients who have downloaded those ebooks but like to wait for the hard copies. I think the love for real books will never die,” he smiles.
Tarun operates on the basis of orders and does not keep many books in stock. But he has a flair for understanding the interests of his clients and suggesting books for them accordingly. “I talk to people and understand the kind of books they like. So when I go to deliver one book to a client, I take about 10 more that I feel he/she will like based on my understanding of their interests. Usually, they end up taking one of them.”
He charges people the printed price for all books, except for rare titles and those that required extra effort in sourcing. In such cases, he tells clients about the additional cost of procuring the book right at the beginning and charges an additional amount of about ₹200 to₹500. Even when working hard to find these books, Tarun does not take any advance from his buyers because he believes in working in “good faith”.
“I don’t know how to do any other work different from working at a bookstore. I love reading books. The way people go to offices and do different types of jobs, I read books. Reading is all I like doing from my heart,” says Tarun who completed his BSc from Raja Rammohan Roy College in Kolkata. Currently, he is reading This Was a Man by Jeffrey Archer and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Pearl by The River. He lives with his wife and elder brother, while his son works as an engineer in Singapore.
“Earlier, because of the absence of Internet and television, people used to read a lot more than they do today. There has been a slight effect on readership, but people interested in reading are always there. Moreover, the culture of reading is still alive in Kolkata. People like going back home and sitting with a book. That’s why my business is still running, I think,” he concludes.