A different kind of bookseller: Indian city remembers Ram Advani

For 68 years until his death, Ram Advani ran an independent bookshop in Lucknow that was more like an old-fashioned salon than a business, one where he got to know his customers - who came from all over India and overseas - and only sold them titles he thought they would want to read

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 10:18am

On March 9, the bookstore on the corner of the art deco Mayfair building in the Indian city of Lucknow was closed to its usual stream of visitors. Ram Advani, the beloved bookseller who ran the city’s oldest independent bookshop, had died that morning at the age of 95.

Advani established his shop in Lucknow, the capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, in 1948. He was widely known for his soft demeanour and erudite knowledge, and for embodying the cosmopolitan spirit of the city.

Many scholars of South Asia credit him with enabling their research. With news of his death, people across the world recalled the slight, charming man, his inviting bookstore and the fading history he represented.

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Advani was born on October 12, 1920, in Karachi, to a family of booksellers from Sindh province who owned shops throughout present-day Pakistan. The eldest of five children, he accompanied his father to Lucknow in 1928 so that his father, having heard that the British had settled in that city, could open a bookshop that catered to their preferences.

He spent his formative years in the city, studying there and earning his master’s degree from Lucknow University in 1943.

At the encouragement of an uncle, he went to Shimla, a hill station in northern India, where he worked at the Bishop Cotton School as a treasurer, part-time history teacher and coach of the school’s cricket team. There, Advani was surrounded mostly by foreign teachers and Anglo-Indian students.

“They made you feel comfortable, and yet, there was that patronising, or that tone, which sometimes hurt one,” he recalled of those pre-Partition years in a 2007 interview with the University of Leeds in the UK. “I was sensitive. I did feel hurt. And I felt, I can’t stay here.”

At the suggestion of another uncle, he visited one of his family’s bookshops in Rawalpindi, in the summer of 1945, to see if a career in book-selling suited him.

His interactions with the vendors and customers cemented his decision to become a bookseller.

“They knew how to be kind without patronising, and that made me feel very much that there is something in bookselling that is worth thinking about,” he said during an interview in 2014.

Soon after Independence, Advani secured a property for a bookshop and opened it on February 15, 1948, in the heart of Lucknow. The shop moved to its present location in the Mayfair building in 1951.

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Advani’s bookstore became a hub of intellectual and community life in the neighbourhood that, at the time, was known as the place to see and be seen. With its rich history as the centre of the former kingdom of Awadh and its political sensitivity within India, Lucknow was primed as a destination for scholars.

But the way Advani positioned himself as a bookseller helped attract even more people to the city. He focused his inventory on English books, especially rare books, and prided himself on being able to access them for customers.

“He was the kind of bookseller who would look at the catalogues with the customers in mind,” says Advani’s sister, Mohini Mangalik, 91, adding that he used to study the way customers interacted with the books to best understand what might interest them.

William Dalrymple, a historian, writer and co-founder of India’s annual Jaipur Literature Festival, says Advani used to email him with book recommendations and about new arrivals.

“He had a brilliant sense of what you were doing or wanted, so I ended up buying huge quantities of my books from Ram rather than from Amazon because he was better,” Dalrymple says. “Many scholars did what I did: buy most of our books about India via Ram.”

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Visitors could count on an intimate, welcoming experience at the bookshop, which was reminiscent of an old-fashioned salon. Classical music often played in the background, as Advani was a fan. He made it a point to introduce visitors to each other.

Well-read on both current affairs and scholarly materials, with a love for cricket, golf and whisky, he was willing to talk at length to anyone about any topic – except for politics, which he felt might create strife in an otherwise tranquil environment.

The bookshop closed the day Advani died and opened again for business the next day. His family says they’d like to continue running it, although neither of his children live in Lucknow.

But the bookshop, synonymous with Advani’s big personality, won’t ever quite be the same, they acknowledge.

“He was more into helping people,” says Radhika Prakash, Advani’s daughter. “Matching a title with the type of person whom he thought you were. He was a different kind of bookseller.”

Tribune News Service