Back in the early 1990s, when the term ‘online’ still belonged to the future, renowned Kolkata cardiologist Professor Sital Ghosh was sitting with a patient at the Kothari Heart Research Centre. The doctor was pretty much sure that the patient needed a surgery, but he wanted to reconfirm his diagnosis and for that he needed the latest issue of the British Medical Journal.
So while the patient waited, the doctor too impatiently waited, for his copy, which had just arrived from London and was now on its way, being carried to him by the subscription agent. The agent — a young woman barely into her twenties — was still catching her breath when the doctor grabbed the copy from her, went through the relevant portion, and ordered the patient to be wheeled into the operation theatre.
“Now when I recall the incident, it feels straight out of a movie,” says Mayura Misra, now 50, who is today better known as the owner of a standalone bookstore called Storyteller, located on the city’s EM Bypass. It’s possibly the only old-fashioned standalone bookstore in Kolkata, certainly one that doesn’t also sell toys and games, and certainly one that’s run by a proprietor who’s passionate about the printed word.
Ms. Mishra grew up in the tea gardens of north Bengal; her father was employed there and she went to school in Kurseong. Her mother, she says, was one of the few to be hand-picked by Jawaharlal Nehru himself as air-hostesses for Air India. After school, Ms. Mishra joined college in what was then Calcutta, where she settled once she got married.
“My father-in-law didn’t want me to sit at home. My uncle, at the time, ran the Oxford Subscription Agency on Park Street. So I joined his firm on a salary of ₹3,000 and took over his Calcutta operations,” she says.
About a year later, having learnt the ropes, she became an independent subscription agent, renting a godown on Theatre Road to stock new arrivals. Back then, when the concepts of online subscription and online edition were still in the realm of imagination, one had to rely solely on subscription agents to import and hand-deliver journals published abroad. Ms. Mishra would personally carry copies — of The British Medical Journal, The Journal of American Medical Association, Chemical Abstracts, Biological Abstracts, Golf Digest, Architectural Digest, National Geographic, among others — to institutions and individuals.
Soon she was reaching out to libraries of schools, importing books for children. “No one was specialising in children’s books at the time. Kids had to wait for an aunt to come from the U.K. or the U.S. to bring them books,” she says. By now she had purchased a dupleix apartment on Theatre Road, and a portion of the house served as the godown.
Working in lockdown
Today, she lives on EM Bypass, and the ground floor of her house serves as Storyteller, the bookshop she opened in 2012. “During the lockdown, we did a lot of online sessions with authors, especially children’s authors. We also started delivering across Kolkata in April — we were probably the first to resume delivery of books in India. Our staff stayed in the store — we provided them boarding and lodging — and the books were sanitised before they were dispatched through Swiggy. Now we are open for browsing,” says Ms. Mishra.
She sums up: “The temptation has always been there to stock toys and games, but if I do that I won’t be able to concentrate on good books. Mine is not a profession you can take lightly. A lot of hard work goes in selling printed matter in this digital world. Booksellers are the ones with a heart and soul.”