The amiable and witty K K S Murthy, the face and voice of one of Bengaluru’s oldest and iconic landmarks took around 20 of us down an enchanting memory lane on October 10th, a pleasant Saturday evening.
It was part of Jamming through October festival organised by Maraa , a community media collective based in Bangalore.
Murthy’s bibliophilic father K B K Rao practised as a lawyer in Kurnool (Andhra Pradesh). "Father would visit Bangalore on merely receiving a post card from auctioneers in Bangalore about families leaving the city selling used books. I have seen people from Kerala carrying and selling books in baskets here", said Murthy.
Rao finally relocated with his family to Bangalore in 1944-45 and started Select in 1945 in an Englishman’s garage on Museum Road catered to eminent Bangaloreans such as Sir C V Raman who had specific tastes.
With a post-graduate degree from the Indian Institute of Science, he worked as an Aeronautical engineer in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and with private firms in the US. However, he kept learning about the used book trade immensely while choosing, buying and shipping books from dealers and auctioneers in Paris and New York (during his professional stints in nearby Spain and New Jersey) apart from those in Bangalore, Delhi, Bombay and Madras (as he prefers to call Mumbai and Chennai). Murthy formally took over Select in 1977.
Murthy recalled an interesting episode in Paris while he was working as a liaison officer at Turbomeca (a helicopter turbine designer and producer). His father had asked him to procure secondhand books from shops on the river Seine’s banks and also a sample of his favourite author Katherine Mansfield’s perfume. “I accomplished both tasks with great joy, including obtaining a large colour illustrated book on Dasara celebrations during Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar’s rule for Sir CVRaman. The renowned physicist greatly respected the then Maharaja as his research institute was established thanks to the latter”. He also mentioned how the Indian Embassy in Paris willingly helped him parcel the books.
After quitting his initial engineering jobs in New Jersey, Murthy joined Simon and Schuster, a book publisher’s warehouse as an inventory controller. There he observed primarily Spanish speaking youngsters in the basement meticulously inspecting published books. Sometimes they rejected classics like Sir Laurence Olivier’s Shakespearean plays in a slipcase along with long-play (LP) records as they detected a dent at the edge of the cover! Noticing a pile of several discarded books in a corner and learning from the branch office about the absence of a disposal process, he purchased them for US $200 and later dispatched them to his father’s bookshop in India through sack mail, a facility unavailable in India according to Murthy. Concerned about the expenditure, his father advised him to send only one or two copies per book.
Murthy narrated some of his “early adventures in locating spectacular tomes like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner with the illustrious Gustave Dore’s engravings in two large volumes” from Durga Bookstall in Russell Market. With a stationery section on the ground floor, the store had a fantastic secondhand book collection on the first that opened only for his father. Sait who still visits and supplies them ran a circulating library cum old books store near Coles Park but he primarily operates from his house now.
Suma Ponnamma who joined the story session midway is Murthy’s friend and regular customer. She said she has never missed visiting the shop regularly since 1960. Historian and writer Ramchandra Guha, The Hindu’s Editor-in-Chief, N Ram and former Karnataka governor T N Chaturvedi are also among his long time customers.
No. 71, Brigade Road Cross, Brigade Road
Timings: Mon-Sat, 11.00 AM-6.30 PM; Sunday, 11.00 AM-5.00PM
According to Murthy, Select’s sales are declining probably because people are reading less, contradicting the common assumption that the book business is flourishing. Some of us wondered if digitising books is reducing print buyers. “I only collect books and don’t read them. Also, I didn’t want to start a circulating library after seeing father’s challenges with it. But I always enjoyed watching movies like the Moon and Sixpence for a few annas. Sadly, most of the old the theatres are gone now!” Murthy added.
When people asked his father how he could sustain his shop with only 3-5 customers a day and also support his family, he would reply smiling, “Still I succeeded in educating and marrying my children off with just this business”.
Sanjay, Murthy’s son joined him in 1999 when they expanded to the first floor. Murthy also has a publishing business and contributes articles to the Times group’s newspapers too. “I would like to create an encyclopedia of proverbs, maxims, etc. soon and I have been collecting books in various languages to fulfill this task”, Murthy adds. Apart from an annual sale of rare, out-of-print books in Bangalore, Select also participates in book fairs/exhibitions nationwide.
When Murthy first said, “I think I should stop now and let you all ask me questions. Otherwise, I can go on for a lot longer”, we urged him to continue his spell binding anecdotes. After nearly an hour and a half, we reluctantly ended the session promising to return for more! ⊕