by Medha Kulkarni
Appa Balwant Chowk, popularly known as ABC by all Punekars has been every book-lover’s paradise (including me), for the past 70 years. It is Pune’s only street book market with long stretches of stalls and stores on two sides of a busy vehicular road. I have been going there for as long as I can remember. Usually, I would either zoom past the market in my car and observe it through the window and other times I would just stop, pick up what I needed and leave.
This time, however, instead of the books, I wanted to focus on understanding and observing the people of the market, something I’d otherwise always overlook. So, I set out on foot, and as I walked through the narrow busy footpath my eyes fell upon a tiny shop. It caught my attention merely because it was so small in comparison to the shops around it, and was crammed with stacks of books in its every corner. It was also one of the first to open in the morning and the other shops in line still mostly had their shutters down, even at 11 am. Standing just outside this tiny enclosure, that one can barely call a shop, was a man, probably in his 50s. He had a warm and welcoming face and stood confident as if he were ready to take on the challenges of the day. Since he seemed pretty idle at the time, and the size of his shop made me genuinely intrigued, I walked up to him with the hope that I’d be able to learn a bit about him and his business.
When asked about what his shop was called, the owner, Rajan kaka* proudly pointed upwards to a small nameplate that said ‘A to Z Book Depot’ followed by ‘All Books Available Here’, and informed me that it had been existing for the past 20 years. I remember thinking to myself, that the name was quite ambitious for a shop of that size. I looked at the many piles of books that were displayed right in front, on the footpath, trying to decipher which category they belonged to. Observing my slightly confused expression, he told me at once that all the books he sold were second-hand. ‘Would you also like to sell your old school textbooks?’ he asked hopefully. He further went on to tell me that in the process of buying and selling, he checks that the books are in good condition, if all the pages are in place, and other such details. Although initially, this wasn’t necessarily his calling, over the years he’s grown particularly fond of books, especially old ones, and enjoys restoring and recycling them. I mean, who wouldn’t? He mostly spends his day overlooking the busy street in front or making conversation with fellow booksellers.
Rajan kaka wishes to one day expand his tiny stall into a full-fledged shop, like the ones across the street. He wants the shop to live up to its name, and be carried forward for many years. But for now, he stands contently in his 1m by 1 m shop, greeting every passerby with the same warm, friendly look on his face.
Taking that walk that day made me realize that stories can be found everywhere, you just have to slow down, observe and listen.
*kaka– the Marathi word for uncle, and often used to address older men
Medha is a final year student of architecture from Pune, and studying at VNIT Nagpur. Currently, her interests lie in vernacular architecture, the architectural history of Indian cities, and urban renewal of decaying urban areas.