From a Mumbai coolie to India’s largest bookstore owner: the many chapters of Suresh Shah’s life | Condé Nast Traveller IndiaMay 28, 2021
Suresh Shah; inside Sapna Book House, Bengaluru Photo: Wikicommons via CC 4.0
Suresh Shah’s journey from a coolie at Dadar station, Mumbai to the owner of one of India’s largest bookstore chain is a story of serendipity, struggle and grit. Shah passed away of COVID-19 on 25 May, leaving behind a legacy and a story worthy of a book in its own right.
Sapna Book House has 19 stores across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Apart from this it has several other verticals which include a successful e-commerce portal for books as well as a publishing company which is the biggest Kannada language publisher in the country. This homegrown brand has long since offered a beacon of hope for book and mortar stores flailing under the combined threat of online retailer discounts and a reduced readership. Even as many standalone book shops downed their shutters, Suresh Shah pivoted his business to ride out each challenge and withstand takeovers by MNCs. Books were not only a business but a part of a larger agenda to get people to read more, a mission that he continued till the very end of his life, personally going into his stores and chatting with his staff and customers about books old and new.
Suresh Shah and his sapna
Suresh Shah’s storied life began in a world far removed from letters. Born into a family of less than modest means in Mumbai, his life was earmarked by financial struggles. Despite being a good student, his family’s economic situation, exacerbated by his father’s death made him drop out of college and take up a job as a porter in the Ghatkopar Railway Station. It was here that a chance meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru changed the course of his life. A few simple words of encouragement from the then prime minister of the country propelled him towards a new job in a book distribution company. Although he started off as a peon whose job included rearranging bookshelves, his hard work made him stand out and he was soon promoted to the position of assistant manager. Serendipity played a big role in his life and a transfer to Bengaluru in the 1960s paved the way for bigger dreams. It was here that Shah, supported by his wife, quit his job and started his own book shop in1967 which he aptly christened Sapna Book House.
His first venture was little more than a hole-in-the-wall shop selling tiny Lilliput dictionaries. These struck a chord with weekend shoppers and the business took off, enabling him to rent a larger store in the city’s Gandhinagar area. From here, it was an upward trajectory for Shah and Sapna Book House. The inventory increased as did the number of stores. Shah’s ideas about the business of book publishing in India were far-reaching and as much about increasing the tribe of readers as it was about making books a profitable product. The Gujarati from Mumbai taught himself Kannada and ventured into publishing books in the vernacular language under Sapna Publications. These became super successful and also brought several award-winning Kannada writers like poet K.S. Nisar Ahmed and novelist K. Shivaram Karanth into their fold.
Diversification was key to the success of Sapna Book House and Shah along with his son and grandson expanded its scope. While books remained his main focus and Sapna Book House grew as a chain across Bengaluru, Shah also ventured into stationery, textbooks and even started a self-publishing portal for first-time writers. His e-commerce site preempted the hit to smaller Indian companies by big brands and adapted to the times.
In 2008, his company was awarded the Karnataka Rajyostava Award for being the largest Kannada book publisher.
Shah’s passing is a loss not only for book publishing but Kannada literature in particular, which found a modern publisher to carry their books to a larger audience. Shah’s abiding love for books translated through the hours he spent on the shop floor, interacting with customers, distributors, salespeople and the biggest publishing editors in the country. In his life, he was one of the few who truly spread the word.