The intellectual world in India owes a deep debt to Shanbhag for making available the best books in all disciplines of knowledge at affordable prices. The honour has elated him but more so the affection of his innumerable friends from all walks of life all over the world. Shanbhag says, I am elated, of course. I think my friends Soli Sorabjee, N Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji and others recommended my name for the honour. As you know I have never sought nor wangled for honours in my life, says a modest Shanbhag. For once, perhaps, T N Shanbhag, must have found bouquets heavier than books. He is, of course, more comfortable with books, his lifelong source of divine joy.
It is to share this joy with as many readers as possible that he set up the Strand Book Stall on 20th November 1948 with a paltry Rs 450 in his pocket. Over the years through thick and thin, he has struggled hard to establish himself. Transparent dealings and a no-nonsense-approach earned him goodwill from all sections of society that has been his strength all along. He regards himself as a high priest of the goddess Saraswati.
His mission: to make the best books in all areas of human knowledge available at affordable prices to Indians with modest means. His fabulous discounts that have ranged from a minimum 20 per cent to 80 per cent as in the ongoing book exhibition in Sunderabai Hall in Mumbai have defied market economics. Says Shanbhag, Knowledge should be free. High prices of books hinder free flow of knowledge. That is why I try to bring them within the reach of readers through heavy discounts. I know this makes no commercial sense but then I have never been after money. My aim is not to become another Croesus. I am a devotee of the goddess Saraswati.
But then his idea of a bookshop, an ideal bookshop at that, does not square with the ordinary image of a bookshop. In a quotidian sense he sells books but in an ontological sense he spreads knowledge by making available best books at reasonable prices. As he says, The book I sell must be one that is worth keeping. To create an ideal bookshop and make a success of it, it is essential to understand the dynamics and logic of the written word. He has been a voracious reader himself. That is why, both discretion in the selection of books and discounts in making them available to the learned and the laity alike have been hallmarks of his success and fame.
A virtual whos who of Indian intellectuals have been his clients for over six decades. Ambalal Sarabhai and his son Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, S Radhakrishnan, Dr B R Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan, Sham Lal and R K Laxman among others patronised SBS. The current President Abdul Kalam visited Strand with Vikram Sarabhai some forty years ago. Strand Book Stall has been a Kashi of the booklovers irrespective of their material or intellectual status.
For Shanbhag the late Jawaharlal Nehru was as valuable a customer as is a bookloving son of an illiterate villager from Uttar Pradesh who visits Strand to buy an encyclopedia. Both are greeted with the same savoire faire. When Jawaharlal Nehru visited Strand and was surprised to see fabulous discount even though he could afford to pay the full prices, Shanbhag recalls telling him: Sir, you are our ruler and to keep you informed is my duty.
Todays Strand Book Stall owes to vicious treatment the young Shanbhag, an avid booklover, received at the hands of a Mumbai-based prominent book publisher and distributor. He was prevented from browsing books. That stung him deeply. He vowed to start a bookshop where every book lover will strand. He recalls days in the early forties when he used to save from his meagre money to buy Penguin/Pelicans on Saturday. At the time books meant for India used to arrive from Southhampton, England. As many as 20,000 titles were available on a variety of subjects. He still has preserved Penguin/Pelican paperbacks of those times. He could buy three Penguins/Pelicans for just one rupee!
Shanbhag gives credit for making good books affordable to the masses to the late Sir Allen Lanes paperback revolution. Sir Allen pushed the horizon back for 100 hundred years or so. Shanbhag was among the first booksellers to realise the potential of paperbacks in transforming the book world and act swiftly on making them available to Indian readership at virtually throwaway prices.
But it is Shanbhags tremendous insight into books on a variety of subjects and his wide network of contacts with international publishers that has enabled him to bring the latest and the best books to Indian shores at affordable prices. But his most remarkable achievement is in having broken the anti-reader Net Book Agreement (NBA). Shanbhag was the only bookseller in the world who gave 20 per cent discount on published prices to his clients out of 25 per cent available to distributors from 20th November 1948 when he set up the Strand Book Stall.
Barnes and Noble, the largest bookshop in America started it in 1996. Thus the two centuries plus old Net Book Agreement that prevented a bookseller from giving discounts, broke down in 1998. Until then booksellers dared not defy publishers for fear of stoppage of book supplies.