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Sapna Book House: How a Coolie Established One of India’s Largest Book Chains

Sapna Book House: How a Coolie Established One of India’s Largest Book Chains

Migrating with his family in the early 1960s, Suresh C. Shah began his remarkable journey from a 10x10 square feet book shop in Bengaluru.

Suresh C Shah, the founder of Sapna Book House, which ranks among the most iconic bookstore chains in Karnataka, passed away in Bengaluru after succumbing to Covid-19. Many tributes have begun pouring in from across the state, given the special place Sapna Book House holds as one of the leading publishers of Kannada literature.

Today, Sapna Book House has 19 branches across the state. Looking back at his life, Suresh Shah stands as one of the lesser-known success stories of Indian entrepreneurship.

Born on 3 March 1938 in Ghatkopar, a suburb of Mumbai, Suresh spent a significant part of his childhood supporting his family. His father, Chhaganlal, worked at the Cotton Exchange near the Kalbadevi area of Mumbai but found it hard to make ends meet.

Despite his natural aptitude for academics, Suresh would help his father at the Cotton Exchange whenever possible. “I was 10 years old, [and] the eldest [child] in the family. Whenever I could spare time, I would go and help my father,” he once told Chitralekha, a Gujarati publication.

After completing his matriculation with a First Class, he enrolled in a college. However, poverty would refuse to leave the family. Suresh had little choice but to quit his education and find odd jobs like delivering various items ranging from soaps to pearls to affluent households in the city.

Fortunately, however, he happened to know the station master of the Ghatkopar railway station. The station master knew how Suresh was working hard to support his family. He suggested to the young boy that it would be better to work at the station rather than working at several different places.

Thus, instead of running around working odd jobs, he began working full time as a coolie at the station. Such was his enterprising spirit that he would end up becoming the president of the Ghatkopar division of the Mumbai Coolie Association.

Following his stint as a coolie, he found work at a pocketbook distributing company run by a businessman known as Tulsi Shah.

With a monthly allowance of Rs 75, he worked 15-hour shifts at the office located on Dalal Street. Upon seeing Suresh’s hard work, Tulsi Shah promoted him to the role of assistant manager and transferred him to the company branch in Bengaluru during the early 1960s.

He arrived in the city with his wife Bhanumathi and his two-year-old son, Nitin. Despite succeeding in turning around their branch in Bengaluru, he had disagreements with Tulsi Shah. Moreover, Bhanumathi always encouraged her husband to start his own business.

Inside Sapna Book House (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Speaking to India Today in a 2008 interview, Bhanumati said, “My husband had a tiff with the owners of the company he worked for. So I advised him to work independently, which would allow him to work according to his own ideals. Leaving the job and starting one’s own business was a risk, but I was confident of my husband’s capability.”

Taking his wife’s advice seriously, Suresh quit his job after working a couple of more years and launched Sapna Book House in the city’s Gandhinagar area in 1967. Starting with a hundred books in a 10×10 square feet bookshop, it was a humble beginning.

The first book they reportedly sold was a Lilliput pocket dictionary. Between 1967 to 1977, Suresh leveraged his sharp business acumen and worked long hours, taking the business to new heights. He soon acquired a 1,200 square location for their first retail outlet in Gandhinagar. He never looked back from that day.

His incredible ability to grow his business to massive heights was only matched by his contribution to Kannada literature.

“Though he is not from Karnataka, his contribution to Kannada is immense. He was the first to publish omnibus editions of complete works of Shivaram Karanth, Nisar Ahmed and others,” said Kum. Veerabhadrappa, a noted writer whose works have consistently been published by Sapna, in a conversation with The Hindu.

Suresh, a unique personality with ancestral origins in Dhoraji, Gujarat, championed the cause of Kannada authors and literature like very few have in recent years. Sapna’s branches host a wide range of books by authors from the state. In fact, to mark the 55th Karnataka Rajyotsava Day in 2011, Sapna Book House released 55 books in Kannada.

As Suresh once said, “Sapna is today a brand name that is synonymous with books. It is the only place in India where you can find over one lakh titles on a variety of topics under one roof.” Today, the chain is now run by Suresh’s descendants, including his grandson Nijesh Shah, and their business largely focuses on selling educational textbooks for students. Moving along with the times, Sapna has expanded into the e-commerce business as well.

In establishing one of India’s largest book chains, the legacy he leaves behind is clear to see. His love for books and sheer hard work not only changed the fortunes of his family but positively affected many lives moving forward.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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