As an avid reader, I am always on the hunt for a good bargain, with my general rule being: the older the book, the better. Of course, a Kindle is highly useful when you have a 20kg weight restriction on a family holiday trip. However, nothing truly surpasses the feeling of handling the half-dying binding of a decrepit book, held decades ago in pristine condition by someone with their own story to tell.
So naturally, whenever I travel back to Kolkata (the home of my relatives), I cannot wait to visit College Street: a 1.5 km stretch of road, teeming with outdoor book stalls spanning approximately 1 million square feet. It is nicknamed ‘Boi Para’ by the locals, literally meaning ‘Neighbourhood of Books’ in Bengali. However, this is somewhat of an understatement: it is an awe-inspiring site and the largest second-hand book market in the whole of India. In amongst the bustling urban centre of the city, with thousands ambling, loud car horns tooting, and a vivacity only characteristic of busy Indian routine; the street is an undeniable hidden gem.
I have never understood the phrase “an assault on the senses”, which one often hears directed towards the sites of India. College Street is a fantastic example of how one’s senses are far from ‘assaulted’, but wonderfully invoked to glorious effect. The scent of old books instantly hits you like a wave and a panoply of colour greets you from all angles. There are books everywhere, towering around you as far as the eye can see. If you are an adequate haggler, there is no reason not to fetch your favourite classic in a first edition for next to nothing. Indeed, on our last trip, we were even lucky enough to acquire a fifth edition Gray’s Anatomy for only 500 rupees (about £5), variably reported to be worth up to an astonishing £344 today.
It is the kind of place where, picking up a book and seeing a personalised inscription from the 1800s scrawled into the cover, would be nothing other than a standard occurrence. Experiencing a connection to the past through literature is a wonderful feeling, and what better way to do it then through seeing how that same book in your very hands has affected another, generations ago? What is particularly rare about this little haven, is that the negative aspect of cut-throat business has not yet corrupted this community. If one seller does not have what you require (though this is seldom ever), he will simply access the trusty network of sociable sellers across the street, and they will not rest until that coveted copy of War and Peace has been successfully sourced. The variety is astounding, and comforting to any traditional and nostalgic bibliophile.
It simply feels as if the modern day has not tainted College Street; there is a timeless sense of tradition and this stems from the place’s richly infused history. Unsurprisingly, this is probably due to its trace back to the British Raj, when a love of scholarly learning was imbued into the locality as various academic institutions began to appear as early as 1817. Since then, students well-versed in the art of bargain deals, from Calcutta Medical College and University of Calcutta amongst others, rush to buy their annual collection of textbooks for comparatively little in our eyes. Afterwards, they flock to the famous Indian Coffee House; a notorious haunt for political activists in the 1930s, as well as famous poets like Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. All of whom congregated inside the densely packed café to muse over literature and political theory.
It is against this fascinating historical backdrop that College Street continues to be one of the most immersive, unique and dynamic open bookshops in the world. If you are ever lucky enough to visit Kolkata, you cannot miss such an opportunity: a wonderland for any tourist, and a treasure trove for any literary fanatic.
Photograph: Rajib Ghosh via Flickr