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KD Singh: The Book Shop owner who shaped his customers’ literary taste

The Book Shop in Jor Bagh reflects the personality of the man who was more than just books.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | New Delhi | Updated: May 24, 2014 10:33 am
KD Singh with wife Nimi at the Khan Market store that shut in 2006 KD Singh with wife Nimi at the Khan Market store that shut in 2006

There’s more than one story at The Book Shop, and they are not just confined to the books. The cosy little sanctum for bibliophiles, tucked in a corner next to Steak House at Jor Bagh Market, is quiet on a weekday morning. You know the customers are regulars when, after a brief browse, they walk directly to the person behind the cash counter to chat before they leave. Literary fiction of all sorts — graphic novels, thrillers, children’s stories — are meticulously categorised under different publishing houses. Yet, its inanimate, concrete character reflects a personality distinctive of the man known in the Capital as one who shaped people’s taste in books (and more) — its owner KD Singh (a sobriquet many are familiar with instead of his actual name, Kanwarjit Singh Dhingra). Singh passed away on Wednesday at the age of 72 after a year-long battle with lung cancer. He was cremated at the Lodi Crematorium the same day.

On Wednesday, The Book Shop held a desolate look, its shutters down. But on Friday, it was open for business as usual. “He worked almost till the end, which was in January. He came to the shop in March. He just sat on his chair not willing to leave as though he knew it was the last time he would sit there,” says Sonal Narain, who became a partner with The Book Shop three years ago. She had known Singh for 14 years.

The Book Shop at Jor Bagh. Pic: Amit Mehra The Book Shop at Jor Bagh. Pic: Amit Mehra


One may never run out of stories about Singh and The Book Shop. His daughter Rachna Singh-Davidar recalls the time when, once, a customer, “who seemed vaguely familiar”, walked in the shop and spent an entire afternoon browsing and chatting with Singh. “The next morning my father read an interview in a Delhi newspaper with Gabriel Garcia Marquez who had visited the city for a conference; when an appointment fell through, he said he was wandering through a neighbourhood close to his hotel when he happened upon a bookstore in which he had a wonderful time. The great and the good of the world of books fetched up at The Book Shop,” she says. A look at the guests’ register will bring out names of some of the regulars — Sonny Mehta of Alfred A Knopf publishing house, writers Arundhati Roy and William Dalrymple, Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin and Shyam Benegal, among others.

Singh, on his part, remembered what his customers liked. “He knew the reading habits of his loyal customers and he believed that independent bookstores could thrive if they were focused (in his case stocking quality literary books), had knowledgeable booksellers and an atmosphere that was conducive to browsing. In other words, a good bookstore needed to be a haven for those who loved good books,” says Rachna. Some old timers will perhaps remember The Book Shop in Khan Market, which opened in the early ’70s and was a landmark, until it shut down in 2006. “He was crushed when it closed. He had always said that the the market had grown alongside the book shop. It was just a regular market with a few shops. And to leave it when the market had reached somewhere, was very personal for him,” says Narain. Singh had to shut shop because of a rental hike.

Yet there was more to Singh than just books. Apart from advising publishing houses, Singh was, what Narain calls, a “compendium on everything”. A national billiards champion known for his impeccable taste in clothes, a love for classical and jazz (especially Paul Desmond), art and TV series (BBC’s Brideshead Revisited) and a sardonic sense of humour —  to name a few. Singh was also a partner with Kuldeep Shankar of the neighbouring Steak House in 1963. Anup Bamhi, an old friend from the Khan Market days and owner of Faqir Chand and Sons, remembers the time when they would take long walks on Lodhi Road and discuss their school days. “He was my senior at St Joseph’s College in Nainital. We shared a good rapport. We met all the time, for college reunions and at get-togethers at IHC,” he says.
On Saturday, there will be a prayer meeting for Singh at the Gurdwara in Defence Colony.

This story appeared in print under the headline Man of Stories

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