Jenny December 2, 2012

What is the first thing you do when arriving in a new city? After finding a place to sleep and making sure you’re not hungry, that is. For me, one of the very first things is exploring the bookshops. Large cities may be noisy and hectic, and lack the charm of countryside villages and towns, but what’s great about visiting them is that you can be sure to find at least one or two good bookshops.

Ahmedabad, the 4-million hub of India’s westernmost state Gujarat, is no exception. On my recent visit to the city, I spent a great morning at Art Book Center, a small shop crammed with books, collectibles and decorative textiles. The shop, which has existed for over 50 years, is the lifework of Mr Manharbai Patel, or Manhar, as he introduces himself.

This year, Manhar has run his shop for 42 years. It started in 1970, when he got an opportunity to move on from his job as a typist. Coming from a poor family, Manhar had never had the chance to a collage education; instead he had learned typing which enabled him to get a job to support his parents. While working, Manhar started collecting books about art and textile – an important part of Ahmedabad’s heritage.

In the beginning, he went from door to door, selling books to industrialists and collectors who were interested in rare and fine books. Eventually, he converted part of the old house where he was living into a bookstore. The top floor, with two small rooms and a narrow balcony, became the Art Book Center – and still remains that way today.

Now, Manhar is helped in the shop by his two sons, Alpesh and Ketan. When I visit the bookshop, Manhar is there with the youngest of his sons, Alpesh. Having climbed the narrow staircase that leads up to the books, I find the two of them small-talking.

The main room of the shop is filled with books: from floor to ceiling are piles with heavy collectibles, thin paperbacks, large illustrated publications. All books are on three subjects – art, architecture and textile. “First, I collected books on all subjects, including history, anthropology, politics,” says Manhar. “But then someone suggested I should focus on art only, and it seemed a good idea, given the city’s rich textile history.”

Both him and his sons know their collections well. They know each price by heart, and when a customer comes, they show items to suit his or her specific taste. In the shop, one can find books on all sorts of art: African traditional motifs, Japanese kimono patterns, and crafts from across India. “Foreigners who come here are interested in Indian topics, but my Indian customers love the books on foreign cultures. So I carry both,” says Manhar.

What makes customers spend hours in the shop is the selection of books of course, but also the feel of the place. It’s not only books that fill the small space: Manhar has decorated his shop with small paintings, peculiar items and colorful textiles. From the ceiling hang Chinese paper lamps and finely embroidered Jain flags; on tiny shelves sit old clocks, postcards with Bollywood stars and images of Hindu deities. “It’s meant as an attraction for my visitors,” explains Manhar. “When they enter the shop and find it filled with things, they want to sit down for a while.”

At 72, Manhar still comes to his shop every day. “This is my temple,” he says. “This is where I spend my time: from 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening I’m here, on the balcony or inside with the books.” But it’s more and more his two sons that are taking over the place. Earlier, Manhar used to travel a lot to find books for his collections, now, it’s Alpesh and Ketan who do that.

Today, Manhar is content to have left the poverty of his childhood behind. “I don’t have to do this for the money any more, which is good,” he says. “To have people visit the shop and leave happy, that’s what I want.”

If in Ahmedabad, visit the shop! You can find it through asking people for directions to the Jain temple in Madalpur, not far from Ellis Bridge on the western side of the river. The shop is right behind the temple.