I had read about it. Adjectives like rare, tucked away, quaint, hidden gem etc. can make me visit anything, even a postbox, and this was a full-fledged bookstore. And so it was to be, in the summer of 2013 when I found myself in Ahmedabad, yet again. (It is quickly becoming one of my favourite cities and I have no clue why!)
So the next day I was out scouting the narrow lanes of an old settlement, in search of the Art Book Centre in the Ellisbridge area of the city. Both of us, me and the auto-driver, were craning our necks to look for some sign of a bookstore among old buildings and their very busy facades.
It might be discouraging for some, but I love every second of not being able to find my destination easily, for it tells me how exclusive, less known, off-the-beaten-track and all of those other nice words this place is. While looking for the Art Book Centre, I was like a cat who is on the prowl for a mouse she knows is here somewhere!
And then I found it. A brightly painted building corner and decorative hangings of mirrors and vibrant traditional textiles in a verandah with a vintage iron grill beckoned me closer. A modest sign, painted on the wall pointed me to the treasure trove of books on rare Indian arts, architecture and old collectibles.
As I climbed up a narrow wooden staircase that creaked with every step I took, I brushed past two people who were climbing down. It was cute how the narrowness made us smile at each other, as the space was too little for us to ignore each other!
From the landing I entered a tiny dark room, decorated with ethnic decorations and hangings and filled from floor to ceiling with books. There were stunning black and white photographs of old Ahmedabad hanging dramatically from the ceiling.
The store had an interesting variety of titles all competing for attention. In one shelf I spotted ‘The Baburnama – Letters of Babur’, ‘Gifts of Solitude’ and ‘Ideating Identity’. In another one there was ‘Manifestation of Shiva’, ‘Indian Ikat Textiles’, ‘Pahari Masters’ among others. Then there were a few on the works of Le Corbusier, M.F. Hussain, B.V. Doshi, etc. and tiny collections of priceless sketches and works of architects and artists from around the world.
There is just something about being in a tiny store with lots of interesting titles and varied themes, for the selection of books tells you so much about the owner’s personality! Manhar-bhai, the owner, and his son let me explore their collection at my pace, lending the store an unhurried vibe. It contrasted sharply against the more fancy bookstores, where you can feel the gaze of salesmen drilling holes in your spine, if you spend a little-too-long on that expensive coffee table book.
Manharbhai shared his story about how he started the store with nothing and slowly learned his way around the craft of keeping a curated bookstore. For 40 years he worked during the day as a typist, and opened his dream bookshop only in the evenings. He steadily built himself a set of enviable contacts and network, which still supply him with rare books and other knick-knacks.
I wish I had more time to explore more of those handpicked titles though I did buy myself some handmade paper and decorated envelopes. They also had some hand-painted postcards perfect for gifting, but I saved those for my next time.
On my way back I found myself wondering what it was about the city that kept pulling me back to it, and for the first time I had an answer. It is the Gujarati folk’s knack for keeping small businesses alive that makes this city so charming and keeps it away from the clutches of monotony! What? Of course.. my next visit is already planned..!
Shop for a curated collection of books from the Art Book Centre here.
– by Aditi Bhatia