Nestled in a corner along Shimla’s famous Mall Road stands ‘Maria Brothers’ — one of India’s oldest antiquarian bookstores. Established in 1946, the rickety store has stood the test of time and is a rich repository of antique prints, photographs, maps, art and rare collection of books, with the oldest one dating back to 1552.
Unlatching the pale blue front door and removing the tin covers from the display windows of the dainty bookstore on a chilly winter morning, owner Rajiv Sud says the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically affected the already dying business.
“The bookstore was founded by my late father OC Sud at the middle or latter end of 1946. He was a qualified geographer from Forman Christian College in Lahore,” Sud tells the indianexpess.com.
Having moved back to India before Partition, OC Sud, struggling to find a job, eventually settled on opening the bookstore. “The store primarily dealt with new books but later on, he (his father) switched to antique out-of-print books,” Sud says.
Exuding an old-world charm, the antique store is stacked and cluttered with several first and rare editions collected from various antiquarian dealers within India and outside. “At a rough estimation, I think I should have about 4,000-5,000 books,” says Sud.
Pulling out a neatly wrapped book from a plastic leaflet, Sud shows the oldest book in his treasure trove. “This is a 30-page booklet on India published in France in 1552,” he says while turning the crisp pages of the rare item.
While collecting rare and antique items is a matter of pride for any antiquarian, for Sud, a stack of rare books bought from a dealer turned fruitful when he found a copy of the American Declaration of Independence printed in June 1776.
“We found the American Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. This was a long time ago. Around 10-15 years back,” he says. “But now we don’t know whether that was an original or a copy.”
Beyond books, the store also houses paintings, artefacts and musical instruments. However, those are “just for display and not for sale”. “Our main line of work is with old travelogues on Western Himalayas in Tibet and primarily British Indian history,” he adds.
Illuminated with only three bulbs and a ray of light coming through a small window, the bookstore has hosted several personalities from around the world. “Several foreign dignitaries, Edmund Hillary, Benazir Bhutto and Maneka Gandhi have visited the store. Indira Gandhi had called my father to the retreat where she was staying during the 1971 summit with Bhutto,” Sud tells with pride. “Even now and then filmmakers like Imtiaz Ali and all frequent this place quite often.”
While antiquarian bookstores like Maria Brothers have already been grappling with low footfalls, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit them hard. “Covid, like for most of us in the trade, has affected us also. The business is almost 80 per cent down. The quality of tourists that are coming in are not the buying kinds and we have been grossly dented by the pandemic,” he says.
With business not looking up in the past two years, Sud, who last added a coffee table book to his existing collection in 2017, has stopped investing in the business. “Due to the lack of business and poor reading habits of people, most antiquarian stores in India are gradually winding up.”
“People don’t have the time and since everything is available online on Kindle and more, nobody wants to have the pleasure of leafing through a book from a physical perspective,” he adds. Besides declining interest, the cost of the books is another major deterrent for buyers, he says.
While he does plan to shift the stock online, the task is cumbersome and time-consuming. “I need to have this entire stock catalogued by a good librarian who can do so by the name of the author as well as the title of the book. Moreover, it’s a laborious process because the condition of each and every book will have to be mentioned precisely if it is put online,” he adds.
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