The citizens of Calcutta are avid readers. Arguably, they spend more on books than the residents of any other city, considering the percentage of their earnings. Calcutta is therefore bestowed with both the finest bookstores in this part of the world as well as the most resourceful used book market in the world.
The best bookstore in the city is probably Oxford Books & Stationary on Park Street, a sprawling store spread over two floors. The staff is extremely cordial and they do not mind if you spend hours reading there, which, even though a common feature in the west, is rarely found in this area outside Calcutta. Oxford also has a cybercafe on the second floor. Opposite Oxford is the smaller but equally good Cambridge Book Store. Park Street also has two other good bookstores, one closer to the junction of Chowringhee Road, and another opposite St. Xavier's College, the names of which I forget at the moment, but I can tell that you would not miss them if you happen to be strolling down Park Street on a December evening. Some friends also recommend Classic Books on Middleton Row, which I have never been to, and I understand that a good many bookstores of the scale of Oxford have mushroomed in the Ballygunge area.
Closer to the Chowringhee area, the string of used bookshops along Free School Street gives it a rather bohemian look. The bookshops here may be small but you can find many a rare book gathering dust as it awaits its next discerning customer. I have seen volumes of old Britannicas as well as Britannica year books from the 1960s. The Free School Street book district extends onto Lindsay Street, in front of New Market, where there are a good number of shops, not to mention the street hawkers who come every evening to pedal books on every topic under the sun outside the Globe cinema. Free School Street also has a good bookstore called the Bookmark. Under the crowded façade of the Grand Hotel, is the International Book Store, specializing in foreign publications. In addition to this the newly opened mall, the Shreeram Arcade near New Market has some very good, though small bookstores.
Calcutta's haven for the bookworm is College Street. Whether you take the clanking tram to College Street or walk down from the Central Metro Station, to the cradle of the Indian renaissance, you cannot help noticing the street lined with bookstores and the sidewalks lined with makeshift book stalls. This place may well be regarded as the primary seat of education in this part of the world, with the University of Calcutta, the Presidency College, the Calcutta Medical College, Hare School and numerous other seats of education stand sentinel on the future of Calcutta's intellect. Most of these bookshops are more than a hundred years old and it is not uncommon to meet an elderly shopkeeper who may relate to you how he had sold such and such book to either one of Calcutta's five Nobel laureates, or to one of the revolutionaries, or maybe to the Viceroy himself! The bookstalls are extremely useful if you need books that are no longer in print. You really do not have to look for a particular bookstall. The owner would typically accost you, or for that matter anyone walking down the street, to ask if you need a particular book. He will most probably write down the name and ask you to return within a specified time, typically an hour. There are no computer networks to do their job, but the network within their fraternity is good enough, for more often than not you would have the book at the end of the specified hour.
It would be unfair to complete the story of College Street without mentioning the Coffee House. The Coffee House is the meeting place for the intelligentsia of Calcutta, especially students and teachers of the University. The air is rent with tobacco smoke and voices of the guests as they indulge in animated discussions of all topics under the sun, politically correct or incorrect as the case might be. The place is not exactly for the lovers of nature and quiet and those who want to escape air pollution, but if you happen to like the ambience of a café on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, you would love it here. Adjacent to the coffee house and through the same entrance is the Rupa & Co. showroom, another excellent bookstore. And remember that while you sit listening to the din and fill your lungs with intellectual tar, as you sip at your coffee and eat your chicken afghani and toast remember that that the opposite chair may once have been occupied by Professor Jagadish Bose who beat Marconi at inventing radio communication, or by Professor Satyen Bose who probably wrote his correspondence with Einstein, his co-author of the famous Bose-Einstein Statistics, right here, or Professor Raman wrote his Nobel prize winning thesis on diffraction. And for those who would say that the coffee house is merely a ghost of its past, understand that the Nobel prize winning economist for 1998 participated in discussions similar to the one that the young man in faded jeans and a batik kurta is engaging in today.
Money cannot buy all that the book lovers of Calcutta seek. For that there are the libraries. The most notable of them is the National Library, located in the imposing former residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, the Belvedere in Alipore. The library was moved to the present location after India's independence, and the ballroom was converted into the main reading room. The library has the finest collection of Indian manuscripts and a copy of every single publication in India. On a visit to the library, you should not be surprised to find writers and film directors, not to mention reputed scholars poring over papers. The other notable libraries are the American Library on Chowringhee Road, the British Council Library on Theatre Road, the Goethe Bhawan library in Ballygunge, Gorky Sadan Library on Lower Circular Road, the Asiatic Society Library on Park Street and the libraries of the University of Calcutta, Rabindra Bharati University, Jadavpur University, Bengal Engineering College and the Calcutta Madrasa.
Calcutta's most famous book event is the Calcutta Book Fair held in January every month, the largest book fair in the world in terms of the number of visitors. Needless to say, publishers from all over the world flock to the Maidan in January to sell their wares to some of their most loyal customers in the world. The book fair is a relatively new phenomenon in Calcutta but it has completely eclipsed the Banga Sahitya Samiti, or the Bengal Literary Society convention that once used to be the main literary event in the city.
A bookstall in College Street: Notice the customer scribbling the name of the book he wants for the owner to find it for him.
The legendary Coffee House on Park Street.
Belvedere: Home of the National Library.