The old-world charm of Bandra West houses a quaint library that was incepted in 1980. One stride across Cemetery Road on Mount Mary Steps is not enough to witness this unassuming corner lit with dim lights. At a second glance, a dilapidated structure comes into the picture that reads “Step-in – Circulating Library and Book House”.

Surrounded by 2000+ books, sits a stout man scrolling through the Mid-day website. Prakash Narwani, hailing from Nadiad, Gujarat is the owner of this modest Bandra bookstore. At first, the name of his hometown sent this writer into a frenzy. To clear the confusion, he asks, “Where do you think the Nadiad in the name of Sajid Nadiadwala comes from?” drawing references to his native place located next to Ahmedabad.

Upon close observation, it becomes evident that he is reading about Chandrayaan 3 launch on the Mid-day website. It is the third lunar exploration mission by the Indian Space Research Organisation. He says, “I like to stay updated with what’s happening around the world. In times like ours, where a wide variety of misinformation is trending, I prefer to dig deeper to distinguish reality from fake news.”

Step in to the story that has seen history

This iconic Bandra bookstore has stood the test of time and witnessed the changing landscape of Bandra for the past 43 years. With an area of 80 square feet, Narwani has adorned the store with custom-designed wooden shelves. The insides of the store are slim and endowed with the choicest books from the world of classic literature, sourced straight from Prakash Book House in Victoria Terminus.

With bestselling books like ‘Sirens’ by Joseph Knox, ‘The Best of Everything’ by Rona Jaffe, ‘Quo Vadis’ by Henryk Sienkiewicz, ‘Into the Deep: A Memoir from the Man Who Found Titanic` by Christopher Drew and Robert Ballard, this store is a paradise for those who like to dive into the world of books. With a fairly balanced collection of fiction and non-fiction, bibliophiles can either purchase the books or rent them at a nominal amount.

Keeping up with the onslaught of digital media over paperback, Narwani has kept the price range between Rs 50 – Rs 300. If one wishes to rent a book, they can do so with a minimal deposit of Rs 20 for a period of 2 days. With prices stooping to as low as Rs 50, Narwani has managed to keep the readers hooked to the habit of reading.

Describing the geography of his store, he informs that earlier it was surrounded by Goan-style bungalows and a handful of buildings. The current landscape of Cemetery Road is in stark contrast to what it was in the eighties. Now there are only a handful of bungalows and a lot of buildings, he informs. As the days changed into nights, and months turned into years, construction kept on going and the entire Bandra donned a new look.

Reflecting upon the day he opened the store, he recalls a memory etched deeply in his mind. “Eight days after I opened this store, famous singer Mohammed Rafi passed away. That day we witnessed a monumental rainfall just like 26/11. The rains were metaphorised as the tears of the Almighty, rolling down heavily at his sad demise.”

Famous steps at step-in

Narwani recalls the day when Alka Yagnik visited his store. “She had a bright face with an exceptional pair of eyes. At first, I could not recognize her when she fiddled with the books on the shelf. Once she left, my assistant told me that it was Alka Yagnik,” he said while singing her famed number ‘Ek do teen..’ She visited his store again to buy more fiction books.

His smile widens when he speaks about his beloved friend Ashley Rebello. Rebello is a city-based fashion designer and stylist who has crafted blockbuster looks for the actor Salman Khan. “He used to work for Monalisa studio and had designed portfolios for Bollywood actresses including Rekha. Back in the day, we used to sit at my store and chat over tea till late. His house was right across from my store and he would come down to share the new shoot projects that he was signed for.”

Earlier his customer base was marked by Catholics owing to the wide presence of Christians in Bandra. Gradually, as Christians sold their bungalows and moved out, he observed that people from diverse identities began to reside in Bandra. Now his customer base has a mix of all identities – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and more.

The advent of Step-In

Narwani arrived in Mumbai along with his four brothers and parents in 1967. The Gujarati family found a home in Sion where they launched the first bookstore that was to be followed by another three in times to come. His eldest brother conceived the idea of a bookstall upon a genuine suggestion by his peers. Back then, paperback reading was an elite activity that garnered millions of patrons across book stalls spread throughout what was then known as Bombay.

In the 80s, Narwanis began to experience a huge influx of readers at their store which led to an unprecedented expansion in their business. From their first store in Sion, they branched out to another book stall in Santa Cruz which was headed by the second brother. Eventually, as the readers kept gracing their iconic stores, the Narwani brothers floated their third stall in Vile Parle.

The last of the lot, Prakash Narwani inherited the fourth bookstore which was placed at the strategic location of Bandra in Mumbai. He harks back to the year 1980 when his acquaintance, a laundry man, shifted from Sion to Bandra. “One evening, he dialed on our landline which I happened to receive. Upon hearing my voice, he excitedly told me to move to Bandra. He mentioned that the crowd is eclectic and speaks in English. He added that my bookstore could enhance their intellect and I could benefit from the readership.”

The eldest and the youngest Narwani brothers hopped on an auto ride to Bandra to inspect the store. “As soon as we arrived, we were lured by the picturesque landscape of Bandra. We found a shop with shut banners and saw it as an opportunity. The location also seemed perfect as it lay at the crossroads of a busy space so we immediately made an inquiry. After a few days, we got a call from the owner of the shop who was ready to sub-let the space to us at Rs 300.” shared Narwani.

The onset of the 2000s marked the changing landscape for the four circulating libraries run by Narwanis. “For the initial 20 years, we had a thriving business of selling books, magazines and newspapers. However, in the past decade, people have turned to their screens to consume news and literature. Now, the footfall has upended and our readers are only a handful bunch.”

That was the tipping point when Narwanis realised the need to diversify their business venture. Keeping up with the uncertain times, they launched a real-estate agency to supplement the losses induced by the falling number of readers. Narwani credits the real-estate agency to his elder brother who seems to be the one driving vision into the family business. Run by his son, the real-estate office is located right next to the bookstore at the edge of Cemetery Road.

Challenges of selling books in a digital world

With the rise of digital reading devices like Amazon Kindle, Narwani has witnessed a falling reader base in the past 5-6 years. He credits the downfall to the easy access of mobile phones, the rise of visual media, and podcasts that are more engaging sources of content. “These new trends in technology have broken our attention spans and the patience to read. They have created an urgency to put the books down and stay glued to the fast-evolving, ever-entertaining content that runs on the screens.”

Narwani confesses that his business margins have fallen by a whopping 95 percent. Where his customer base extended to 600-700 per month in the 90s has now fallen to 30-40 per month. “There was no time to sip a cup of tea. I was always attending to readers; pulling out fiction, crime and romance novels to cater to their needs. Now, I am mostly idle sitting with my books and the silence irks me.” In a bid to get rid of these books, he has begun to sell them out for cheap prices.

Now at the age of 72, Narwani shares, that he cannot read anymore. Although, he used to read each book that arrived at the store. Although, now with a smartphone in his pocket, he can barely focus on reading. He turns to the device for his daily consumption of worldly affairs and content. His shop can be visited during 5pm – 8pm, Monday to Saturday at Cemetery Road, Mount Mary Steps.