Bibliomania is a peculiar affliction. I have friends who travel hundreds and even thousands of kilometres to visit some antiquarian bookshop. Once in a while they return disappointed, as the so-called rare books collection turned out to be musty, termite-eaten lumps of mould. I used to be like them. I too have flown to NYC, U.S.A., to browse at Strand (one of the world’s biggest second-hand bookshops) and Melbourne, Australia, to dig through the collections at the Kill City Crime Books store, but then I found Church Street: the book-lovers’ lane of Bengaluru, just a bus ride away from me.
When I moved to Bengaluru in the year 2000, the city didn’t have much of a book scene, but in the last couple of years I’ve witnessed the growth of Church Street as a cult destination for bibliomaniacs. Here’s the best of what it has to offer, and because browsing makes one hungry, the list also includes where to grab a bite when the munchies set in.
Generally, before entering Church Street (ideally from the Brigade Road side), I fortify myself around the corner in the parallel lane with the most authentic Tibetan grub in town at Taste of Tibet (upstairs in Indo-Dubai Plaza, 5 Rest House Road). Apart from the usual steamed momos (₹80 per plate) they have mokthuk, thianthuk, shabalay, shaptra and thukpa, but I usually go for a bowl of soupy phing with tingmo bread (₹100). Next, I wash it down with a ₹400-pitcher of draught at Pecos, the rock & roll bar across the road (that also serves up mean tacos at ₹160 per plate if one is still a bit peckish).
Suitably upbeat, it is time to shop. First, I drop in at Bookworm at 1, Church Street, a spanking new 5,000-sq.ft. showroom for new and second-hand books. It is a popular haunt of journos from the area’s many newspaper offices because whoever browses long enough is usually served a free cup of coffee; also one can often spot celebrity authors like Anita Nair here. I love it for the hefty discounts. I’ve walked away with ₹4,000 worth of books, but a bill of only ₹2,500—a deal that makes online bookstores seem redundant. Plus I have much more fun here than when browsing on the asexual Amazon website.
If it is lunchtime by now, the best-value ₹160 fish thali in town is served between noon and 3p.m. at Anupam’s Coast II Coast, upstairs from the old Bookworm in Shrungar Complex. Their menu comprises a wide range of the finest Karnataka coastal food that you can get in these parts, plus they serve very cold beer, which can be handy for rinsing the throat between bookshop visits.
Another store specializing in book-love is Blossom Book House, a few steps away from Bookworm. It actually comprises two huge stores diagonally across from each other in Church Street, making it probably the biggest second-hand trader in India, a feat which has earned it listings in all the major tourist guidebooks. The older shop (84/6 Church Street) has three storeys: the ground floor showcases the latest hardback arrivals, plus travel, cinema and philosophy; the second floor is for fiction (substantial thriller, romance, Indian fiction sections); and the top floor is exclusively for non-fiction (history, biography, dictionaries). The newer outlet (2, Church Street) is a veritable supermarket of literature. Located above the popular Matteo Coffee, it has loos and free mineral water dispensers, so I can go on browsing forever. The combined retail space of both is… ah, many thousands of square feet, holding anywhere between a quarter million to half a million books. Even the staff doesn’t know the exact figures.
Drifting down Church Street from shop to shop, I pass the Indian Coffee House (19, Church Street) where it is good to clear one’s mind with the cheapest coffee (₹24) in this otherwise upmarket area (they also sell amazingly good coffee powder to carry home), and at the Museum Road corner is the Kerala-style Empire which provides the greasiest non-veg in town. The dosas with chicken curry or mutton keema combo is a perfect source of cholesterol and calories (₹150), a shawarma roll makes for a cheap bite (₹65), while hungrier shopoholics might go for the slow-grilled mutton leg (₹610).
Across the street from Empire is The Entertainment Store (47, Church Street), which isn’t strictly a bookshop, but deals in graphic novels and comic books, movies and filmy merchandise (Batman figurines and suchlike). A little further down the road I come to one of the city’s coolest bookshops, Goobe’s Book Republic (11, Church Street). It is smaller than Bookworm and Blossoms but the hip factor is higher due to a carefully curated selection of pop culture, non-fiction and sci-fi, and the mildly stoner atmosphere. Plus if one can’t afford to buy the books, one can rent them instead, and if one can’t afford to rent them (I had already almost emptied my wallet by this point) one can have a nice chat with the slightly hippie proprietor Ravi Menezes about his plans to spread book-love, literacy and make the world a better place; he runs rural and slum library programs with the profits he makes.
Having lugged my books bag this far, I’m merely a stone’s throw from Koshy’s (39, St Mark’s Road). For the literati it has been a nodal point for over sixty years and an essential part of the book-shopping experience. This is where you can expect to run into authors like Ramachandra Guha having intensive discussions with the who’s who. Rumour has it that Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the greatest author-politicians in world history, has eaten here. So the daily routine for most literate Bangaloreans is to first go and buy something to read in Church Street, then head to Koshy’s for a cup and a puff. If one is short on cash after the shopping, the coffee (₹39) here is quite affordable and no waiter will hassle you even if you linger on to read, but I always go for the best-in-town club sandwich (₹190; ask for mustard instead of ketchup) and UB Export (₹170) to gently ease me out of the bibliomania while I sort through the day’s booty.
And that is the recipe for a perfect Church Street day.
Getting There: Once you are in Bengaluru, take the metro to M.G. Road station (head for the Church Street exit) or go by bus to Shivajinagar Bus Station from where it is a 10-minute walk.
Hours: Most bookshops tend to be open 7 days a week, from about 11a.m. to 7p.m. or even 9p.m., though they may shut earlier on Sundays. Shops dealing in used books will normally buy titles back at half the rate you paid for them.
Other Bookstores In addition to those mentioned, there’s Gangaram’s Book Bureau which is an old Bengaluru institution recently relocated to Church Street (but they don’t sell used books).
In the parallel MG Road, the Higginbotham’s showroom is closed for renovation until 2017, but one can pick up second-hand books at Book Bazaar near the MG Road metro exit.
Select Bookshop is the city’s main rare books dealer in Brigade Road Cross just across from Church Street and a fascinating place to visit; and finally Sapna has a big showroom around the corner in Residency Road with a café attached.
Where Else to Eat: Church Street has an astonishing number of restaurants and cafes where one can take a break, so shopping here can turn into a food adventure. Apart from the eateries mentioned, try Coconut Grove, which has a beer garden and serves a wide range of south Indian cuisines such as Kerala-style appams and stew. Queen’s is a time-tested favourite for north Indian veggie food, and The Only Place (take a turn down Museum Road) is the original steak house of the city. The popular Plan B in Castle Street is a newer burger and beer joint run by a Kodava foodie so the pork is good here but be careful with their shit-hot Buffalo-style chicken wings. To read with a view (and a cocktail by your elbow), visit the 13th Floor at Barton Centre that serves Parsi and Thai food.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).