Kolkata, India, is known for its love for all things literary.
Roadside tea shack owners will talk at length on important writers of the day and rickshaw pullers adorn the backs of their vehicles with the names of writers.
Literary fever peaks here with the arrival of the year’s most awaited event – the Boi Mela (Kolkata Book Fair). It’s the world’s largest non-trade book fair (for the general public instead of wholesalers) with approximately 1.5 million in attendance.
This year’s Boi Mela runs from January 28-February 8 – writers and bibilophiles from all corners of the country and the world have already begun descending on the city.
In addition to the book fair, Kolkata has countless havens for book lovers – some shops are part of big chains, some are tiny independent operations hidden in alleys, some fall somewhere between big and tiny.
Here’s a short list of the city’s best book shops and venues for visitors:
Earthcare Books is one of the most vibrant and warm bookstores you’ll ever come across – in Kolkata or anywhere else.
Set up by husband and wife duo Bharat and Vinita Mansatta, Earthcare emphasizes books that cover ecological issues. One of its bestsellers is the bible on natural farming – “One Straw Revolution,” by Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka.
Earthcare Books is also a publisher. Among its stable of writers are Jeremy Seabrook, twice an Orwell Prize nominee, and Bharat Mansatta himself, who penned one of the shop’s bestsellers, “The Vision of Natural Farming.”
Bamboo and rattan furniture give the space a cozy, lived-in feel.
High up on the walls are framed photos that capture Kolkata, all taken by Irishman Thomas Patrick Kiernan, who has been capturing the city since the 1990s.
On Saturdays, Earthcare hosts a farmers’ market with organic vegetables, oils and cereals. It also holds workshops on urban gardening and composting, as well as musical soirees, informal theater performances and documentary screenings.
Earthcare Books, 10 Middleton St., Park Street area, Kolkata, West Bengal, India; +91 33 2229 6551
Launched in 1982, Seagull Books started as a theater and art press before Naveen Kishore built it into a top-notch publisher with offices in London and New York.
It specializes in translating literature – the company buys rights to European literature and English-language translations.
Its roster of internationally acclaimed authors includes Max Frisch, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Chinese Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, Tariq Ali, Theodor W. Adorno, Pablo Picasso, Lebanese-born Dominique Edde and Swiss francophone Philippe Jaccottet.
Its shop features a range of books on Indian art, theater, literature and cinema. It also stocks beautifully designed books with artwork suitable for framing.
Books apart, you can pick up notebooks with great character, with Kalighat art covers or limited edition notebooks with artist KG Subramanyan’s paintings. The annual catalog is something of a collector’s item.
This year the cover is embroidered silk. Last year it was leather-bound. Another year it was done in hand-loomed cloth.
Inside are gilt-edged pages full of excerpts from books, illustrations, photos and correspondence between translators and publishers.
Seagull Books, 31A, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road, Bakul Bagan, Bhawanipur, Kolkata, West Bengal, India; +91 33 2476 5865
Foreign Publishers Agency
Blink and you’ll miss it.
This bookstore is situated in a small cubicle tucked between the mad milieu of shoe shops in front of the Grand Hotel on Jawaharlal Nehru Road. It’s the go-to place for books on sociology, film studies, literary criticism, anthropology, modern science, semiotics and other technical subjects.
Foreign Publishers Agency, 15/3, Grand Hotel arcade, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Kolkata, West Bengal, India; +91 33 2249 2255
The Bengali Brigade (Ananda, Boi-Chitra)
Even if you can’t understand the language, a visit to these two stores that sell Bengali books is a memorable experience.
At Ananda, the public outlet for Kolkata’s premier publisher of Bengali literature, you can pick up books on Shantiniketan’s famous alpona art and Bengali comic books with panels in gorgeous watercolor featuring Feluda, filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s iconic sleuth.
Boi-Chitra is a studio/bookstore above Kolkata’s legendary coffee and conversation hub, the College Street Coffee House (also known as the Boi-Para or Book Colony).
Ananda, 190/2 Rash Behari Ave., Gariahat, Kolkata, West Bengal, India; +91 33 2464 6212
Boi-Chitra, College Street Coffee House, 2/F, 15 Bankim Chatterjee St., Kolkata, West Bengal, India
Kolkata is home to the grandaddy of the Oxford Bookstore shops around India and a stop is recommended on any itinerary for visitors to the city.
Established in 1920, the original store on Park Street is an essential part of Kolkata. A sign outside reads, “By Appointment to HE Lord Mountbatten, Ex Viceroy and Governor General of India.”
It’s been mentioned in several books, including the Feluda series by Satyajit Ray.
The store stocks books on every subject. Mr. Motwani, an in-house consultant who has been with the bookstore for more than 60 years, is always ready to guide you on purchases. Upstairs is the Cha Bar (tea cafe) where you can sit down with your books and a cup of Darjeeling tea and sandwiches.
Oxford Bookstore, 17 Park St., Kolkata, India; +91 33 2229 7662
Golpark, Free School Street and College Street are pilgrimage destinations where bibliophiles go to flip through racks and piles in search of hard-to-find or rare books, often at bargain prices.
Bookstall owners here aren’t what you’d call “literary,” but they know a lot about books and writers – from the “Russis” like Tolstoy, Gorky and Gogol to the Brits (P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Gerald Durrell, other heavyweights) to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka and Jean Paul Sartre.
Art books, classic screenplays, Westerns, grammar guides, history texts … everything and anything might be found here.
Chitpur Road printing presses
Kolkata has a rich history with the written word.
In his book “Printing in Calcutta to 1800: a description and checklist of printing in late 18th-century Calcutta,” Graham Shaw (head of Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections at the British Library) states that the city became a hub of printing in the 18th century as the East India Company introduced printing to facilitate trade and consolidate the British Empire.
An area around Chitpur Road in north Kolkata became the center of that effort.
Just a handful of the old letterpress operators are left. One of the better remaining examples is Bisjwanath Bag’s press, located inside the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, home to Kolkata’s idolmakers.
Bag operates from an unassuming, shed-like building, with no signage. He owns two letterpress machines along with boxes brimming over with type – alphabets in English, Hindi and Bengali.
Bag is one of the world’s few surviving practitioners of Gutenberg’s age-old method.
The traditional movable type printing method created by Johanness Gutenberg in 1450 inks paper with letter dies aligned in the right order. It takes Bag about two hours to set and compose 40-odd lines of type on an A4 size page.
He mostly composes menus for weddings, bills and memos, pamphlets and other small items.
A current printing job has Bag particularly excited at the moment – an assignment from an Australian customer to print a book on Gutenberg and his revolutionary printing process.
He’ll compose a page for visitors for Rs250 ($4).
Bishwanath Bag, Nepal Neogi Street, near Kumartuli Maath, Oorepaara, Kolkata, India
Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance writer and editor based in Kolkata, India. She’s the founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, an award-winning media collective for children, and a columnist for New York-based Karta, an urban mapping project.