Smart and Mookerdum: Hunting for Myanmar’s Lost Bookshop

It’s the second week of our self-isolation in Yangon.  Having spent the last five days digitally scanning the front covers of my Burma Book collection (just in case the worst happens and we are forced to leave them behind) and doing everything I can to distract myself from finishing the novel, I decided to solve a mystery that has irritated me for years.

Whatever happened to the Smart and Mookerdum bookshop?

Smart and Mookerdum was the pre-eminent supplier and purveyor of fiction, non-fiction, periodicals, newspapers, comics, artwork and stationery during the colonial period of Yangon.  They had a long reach, often being the sole agent and distributor for novels for many of the British publishers and was visited by many of the leading Myanmar literary and political figures of the day plus a scattering of famous Western writers.

They were, of course, not the only bookshop in Yangon during this time.  S. K. Dey Book Supplier in the Strand Hotel had a fair reputation.  As did the City Book Club on 98, Pansodan Street owned by a Bengali family.  Then there was the People’s Literature House on the corner of Merchant and Pansodan (probably where the ill-fated Kafe in Town stood before it burnt down last month) and of course, the semi-legendary Hanthawaddy Printing Works and Bookshop, which like Smart and Mookerdum moved to multiple premises across downtown over their century in operation (they too deserve a dedicated post on Sadaik).

But it is Smart and Mookerdum who holds the title of the most revered of the bookshops in Yangon.  No doubt, in part, to George Orwell and the oft quoted passage in Burmese Days: ‘Oh, the joy of those Rangoon trips! The rush to Smart and Mookerdum’s bookshop for the new novels out from England.

Often, any mention of Smart and Mookerdum, is accompanied by this iconic image, probably originating from the facebook page of the historian and author Thant Myint U.

Smart and Mookerdum
Front entrance to the Smart and Mookerdum bookshop, 221 Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon, 1950

He also includes a handy note on the history of the bookshop, which is replicated in his Burma history website lostfootsteps.

‘It was the city’s preeminent English-language bookshop and a favourite of George Orwell (Eric Blair) as well as several generations of Burmese including U Aung San, U Thant, and U Nu. Smart & Mookerdum was first established in 1897 in the Sofaer building (at the corner of Merchant and Phayre), then moved to Barr Street before finding its final home on Sule Pagoda Road near the corner of Montgomery Street (where the Shangri-la is now). It was nationalized in the 1960s and went downhill soon afterward.’

The problem is, this brief history is wrong and this is where the mystery began for me.

Certainly, from the above image, they claim to have been in business since 1897 and there is no reason to doubt that.  But the Sofaer Building wasn’t built until 1906, so where were they for the previous 9 years, and the picture is not of the Sofaer Building, so where did they go after the Sofaer and how does such a significant bookshop have such a contradictory and unclear history and what happened to them at the end?

The earliest confirmed address I have is 1905, the latest is 1970.  The dates and locations in between have been found through crawling the internet, the newsletters, book stamps and labels, colonial directories, message boards and other websites.

Pre 1905

The Mookerdum family name seems to have a long history in Yangon.  The first reference I can find to them, which does have a connection to the first confirmed location for the shop below, is a civil court case brought in India concerning a property dispute in Yangon.

In 1889, a woman named Khaja Boo, living in the city of Rander in Surat, was involved in a series of property deals which were contested by her children after her death in 1900.   One of these properties involved a half share in a lot on Barr Street (now Mahabandoola Garden Street, next City Hall) in Yangon.  The other half belonged to her daughter’s husband, a man named Adjim Hassim Mookerdum.  A claim for this half of the land and the building on it was brought forward by Khaja Boo’s son (and Adjim’s brother in law), Ismail Mussajee Mookerdum.  While the daughter did not live in Rangoon, at the time of the civil suit, her husband, Adjim Mookerdum was living in the Barr Street premises.  There is no mention of a book shop, only an address Lot No. 6, Block E, Barr Street.  The case was settled in 1906, and of course it is entirely possible that this is not the Mookerdum of the eponymous bookshop, but a Thacker’s Street Directory for Yangon in 1905 lists the 45 residents of Barr Street in that year and there is only one Mookerdum on that list.

1901

The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America published a newsletter in 2007 which makes a passing reference to the British publisher, George Bell and Sons as having Smart and Mookerdum as their Myanmar distributor in 1901.  Unfortunately, there is no mention of an address, but seeing as George Bell and Sons were a leading publisher in the UK at this time, it would seem that S&M must have been operational for a number of successful years to negotiate that permission.

1905

Thacker’s was a well-known Calcutta based publishing company covering the education, economic, religious and social industries of Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, with exhaustive lists of companies and traders, their business, names and addresses.  Burma was first introduced in their Thacker’s Indian Directory in 1905, along with the first mention of S&M, where Thacker’s lists their address at 58 C Barr Street.  Given the existence of a Mookerdum in that street since at least 1889, it’s probably safe to say that both are the same and that the S&M’s original location when they began in 1897 was Barr Street.

1909

Before the arrival of paperbacks in the 1930’s, books were expensive and often shared among readers.  One way of advertising where the book had been purchased was through book plates, stamps and labels, essentially an ID of the shop, placed on the fly leaf or backboards.  The earliest bookplate I can find online for S&M is from an illustrated first edition copy of ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ by Edward Fitzgerald.  The plate simply reads “Smart and Mookerdum Booksellers and Stationers Rangoon”.  There is no address but the book was published in 1909, so it’s possible they had already moved to the Sofaer Building (as remember, that building was erected in 1906) but given the prestige of such a building – it was certainly the most impressive in the city upon its completion – you would assume that S&M would have been sure to promote that in their book stamps and labels.  As they have not done so here, perhaps they were still in their Barr Street premises.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

1915

The ever useful ‘Thackers Directory for India’ confirm that Smart and Mookerdum were still at 58 Barr Street in 1915.

(The link for the Directories take you to the Internet Archive site.  The document is heavy 300 MB plus and takes an age to download)

1920

At some point between 1915 and 1920, S&M finally make their move to the famous Sofaer Building, thanks to a stunning 1920 collection of 16 coloured images from the pioneer watercolour and oil painter, Maung Tun Hla.  When these images were being sold at auction a couple of years ago (for 7500 Euros, not including 21% tax!) they found, affixed on the back of each the images’ mounts, a large, blood-red label declaring: ‘Smart & Mookerdum, Booksellers Stationers, Sofaer’s Buildings, Rangoon’.

M.T.Hla - 1920
1920 Watercolour from M.T.Hla

Post 1920

Confusingly, though we seem to have just confirmed their move to Sofaer by at least 1920, S&M still seem to be using a stamp from the previous Barr Street premise.  The author of this blog doesn’t provide an image but claims to have seen a Barr Street stamp in a copy of D H Lawrence’s, ‘Women in Love’.  This particular book was first published in 1920.  Did S&M sell this book before they moved to Sofaer Building in the same year, or did they keep two premises open at the same time?

1925

Another book label confirms S&M presence in the Sofaer Building in 1925, this time from a 1st edition of ‘History of Burma’, by Godfrey Eric Harvey.   And yet, the Thackers Directory for 1925, lists S&M at the Sofaer Building, this time with an actual street address, No.72, Merchant Street.  Anyone who has been to the Sofaer Buildings knows that it is nowhere near No 72.  Is that a mistake by Thackers?

Sofaer Building
Sofaer Building, 2011, Zahnur Rofiah

1926

Another book label showing S&M at the Sofaer Building but without the street address.

S&M Label

1928

Again, another rubber stamp ID on a book showing the 72, Merchant Street address of the Sofaer Building from a copy of E.F Benson’s Spook Stories (published in 1928) with a handy owner signature also from 1928.  The current address of the Sofaer Building is 537.  Did the colonial authorities change the street numbers at some point in the late 20’s/early 30’s?

Spook Stories by EF Benson, 1928

1933

Apparently not in the 1920’s, for the Thackers Indian Directory for 1933, still lists S&M at the Sofaer Buildings, 72 Merchant Street

1934

And yet, just a year later, in a surprisingly interesting cookbook called ‘Olivia’s Cookbook’, is a large, full page advert for Smart and Mookerdum, still at the Sofaer Building, but with a brand new street number, No. 537, Merchant Street.

Olivia's Cookbook Advert
Smart and Mookerdum Advert in a 1934 Cookbook

Post 1934

This is where it starts to get a little more confusing.  The above advert is from 1934 and clearly refers to the Sofaer Building.  The book labels below, show the same Sofaer Buildings address, the 537 Merchant, not the earlier 72 Merchant, but replacing Sofaer Building with Randeria Buildings.  So these book labels, from sometime after 1934, have a different name and a different street number for the same building as that in 1934.  It is known that at some point in the 1930’s (though frustratingly never pinned to an exact year), the Sofaer Building was bought by a wealthy family of Indian Surti traders with connections to the city of Rander and renamed the building the ‘Randeria Buildings’, just as they similarly named the imposing Rander House opposite on Pansodan Road (where the British Council had their first office in 1947)  The book labels do not show a date, or which book they came from, but the purchase must have happened after 1934.

(and there is a lovely almost half century link, as the original Mookerdum family, back in 1889, were from the city of Rander)

S&M Labels

1936 to 1945

The Thackers Directories for 1936 through to their final edition in 1940/1941 make no reference of Smart and Mookerdum.  In fact, they make no lists at all for any booksellers in the country from 1938 onwards with the single exception of a new entry, the National Agency Book Depot.  In Pathein of all places.  Why this is, I can’t imagine.  Booksellers certainly operated during these years, so why would Thackers omit them?  Thackers collects their information through postal communication with the companies, did all the bookshops for these years fail to reply? The frustrating thing is that some point during these years between the late 1930’s and 1950, S&M moved from the Sofaer Building to the last premises, 221 Sule Pagoda road.  I just can’t find out when.

1950

To turn back to the only image of S&M.  The picture is recognised as being from their 221 Sule Pagoda road premise, next to the Globe Cinema and where the Trader/Sule Shangrila hotel now stands.  But take a closer look at the image.  This was not taken in the colonial era.  This is a post war photograph.  Though slightly blurry, the title of the book displayed on the promotional poster is that of Winston Churchill’s, ‘Hinge of Fate’, which wasn’t first published until 1950.

Smart and Mookerdum
Front entrance to the Smart and Mookerdum bookshop, 221 Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon, 1950

 1957

7 years later, a locally published tourist guidebook for Yangon, lists S&M on Sule Pagoda Road.  It describes the shop as being next to the Globe Cinema, but does not include a street number, unlike all the other bookshops listed.  Why would the guidebook editors omit the street number?  Surely an important detail (especially as in the theatre section they actually list the Globe’s street number).

1964

This is where things get very murky.  Facebook comments mention that the building was nationalised under the Socialist Party Programme and turned into the Corporation Drug Store.  A son of the owner, who left Myanmar in 1967, says the shop was forcibly shut down in 1964.  Another poster remembers a government owned Trade 9 Stationery shop being next to the Globe Cinema in the mid 1970’s.  Was that S&M?

1965

But perhaps the bookshop had yet to meet its demise in 1964.  A 1965 copy of the China Quarterly Review, published in London, lists Smart and Mookerdum as an outlet for the publication, implying S&M still operated and still had the rights to import foreign publications.  Interestingly, the listing does not contain a street number, only Sule Pagoda Road, unlike the other literature outlet for the Review, the government owned Ava House, which is listed at 232 Sule Pagoda Road.

1966

A year later, ‘An Ethnographical Survey of Burma’, published by the Central Press in 1966, gives a list of agents where government publications are available to buy, and still lists S&M at their Sule Pagoda road address, but again, without a street number.  Though these government publications must be taken with caution.  Often the publications are updated over many decades, but by simply adding information without deleting that which has become obsolete over the previous decades.  A government publication on laws within the Air industry has been updated several times since its inception in the 1930’s. The last update occurred (and printed) in 2010 and still contained a listing for S&M plus many other outlets that have long since disappeared (and yet included new outlets that have appeared since the last update in the 1970’s)

Ethnological Survey of Burma

1970

And now we come to the last proof I can find of S&M’s survival.  ‘An Area handbook for Burma’ was a document compiled for US military and diplomatic personal operating in the country.  Published in 1971, it contains a section on the 10 biggest publishers in country.  Along with Shumawa, Hanthawaddy, Myawaddy and Kyipwaye – established and legitimate publishers and printers – is Smart and Mookerdum.  As far as I know, S&M have never been a publisher but a distributer, a book shop, an agent.  And yet, here, in 1970, they are listed as a publisher with an interest in ‘arts, children, fiction and non-fiction’.

The Area Handbook is accurate in many other ways, it seems unlikely they would have listed them in error.  Were they nationalised by Ne Win?  Did they morph from their traditional business of selling books to publishing them?

At this point in their history, S&M is not even listed with an address in the Area Handbook.  And beyond this, they simply disappear.

*

And what about the owners?

Of the Smart in Smart and Mookerdum, I can find absolutely nothing, not even a first name.  No reference, no comment, no quote, no nothing.  It’s as if they didn’t exist.  The Mookerdum family is slightly better represented (at least on the Internet).  A message left on the Methodist English High School (Now Dagon Highschool) alumni website gives a small clue as to what happened to the family.  The poster says he is the grandson of Yaqoob Mookerdum, the owner of S&M (presumably a son or grandson of the original owner given the gap in years) and, in 2003, when he left the message, was living in Pakistan and working as a ‘fighter pilot’.

Other descendants of the last owner, Robert and Richard Mookerdum, appear to be living in Germany and Australia, respectively, and are active on Facebook and Twitter.  They both allude to their family’s bookshop over the years and I’m sure could fill in a lot of gaps in the S&M history, at least until they left in the late 1960’s, but as I am not either facebook or twitter, I’m going to leave it to others out there to reach out to them.

*

So, to sum up, there has been a Mookerdum family on Barr Street since at least 1889.  The S&M bookshop is confirmed to have been on Barr Street since 1905.  At some point in 1920, perhaps later on in the year, they moved to the Sofaer building.  The discrepancy in street numbers from 72 to 537 Merchant Street may have been a re-organisation of the colonial administration that coincided with the same year the Sofaer Buildings ownership was transferred and renamed the Randeria Buildings (though such ownership seems to have had little effect on the legacy of the original builder seeing as it still known as the Sofaer Buildings).  At some point between 1935 and 1950, S&M moved out to 221 Sule Pagoda road and stayed there until at least the early to late 60’s, where they either became a nationalised government stationery shop, a publisher or simply closed down.

The last building they were confirmed in, 221 Sule Pagoda Road was, as Thant Myint U says, pulled down, along with many other fine buildings and cinemas, to make way for the Traders Hotel, now rebadged as the Sule Shangri La.

I don’t usually keep the comments open on Sadaik, but I would really like to know what happened to S&M after 1970, so if anybody knows anything, or can point me in the direction of an answer, please do leave a message below.

And with that mystery half-solved, I’d better get back to the novel.


*UPDATES – APRIL 2020 :

I can’t seem to let this go, and being stuck in the apartment isn’t helping so here are some more finds on my hunt for Smart and Mookerdum

1 – The discrepancy in street numbers from the late 1920’s to 1934 is the result of the colonial administration lengthening both Merchant Street and Sule Pagoda road. Where, for example, the Royal Hotel (now the gamone pwint shopping complex) was originally at No.14 Merchant Street, by lengthening the road, it became 619. Some of the existing business’s, such as A.C.Scott chanegd their numbers straight away. Other’s, like S&M didn’t (The Royal Hotel were still advertising themselves as No.14 a good 8 years after the numbers changed!). Using Thackers, we can be sure that the Merchant was extended at the latest by 1932.

2 – The 1920 dual use of both Barr Street and Sofaer Building’s book stamps. Thacker’s was published in March of every year, compiling data over the previous 11 months. Which means it is possible that S&M was in their Barr Street premises at the latest by February 1920 allowing time to give that information to Thackers before publication, and then move out at some point before the end of 1920 to enable them to sell the D.H.Lawrence book from the Sofaer Building, updating Thacker’s before March 1921 for the 1921 edition.

3 – The owners. Not that i am stalking them or anything, but i did find an obituary in the New Light of Myanmar for June 10th 2011, on the passing in Yangon of ‘Daw Hawabi, wife of the late Y. A. Mookerdum of Smart and Mookerdum’ at the age of 84. So some of the Mookerdum family remained in Myanmar, and given she had 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, many of them still do. Even if the bookshop has gone, the Mookerdum family have not.


*UPDATES – MAY 2020:

More scrounging around on the internet has revealed some interesting info. This time from comments left by Robert Mookerdum on a facebook page for old photographs of Burma

1 – Mr Smart of S&M was Scotsman (not surprising giving the number of his countrymen in Myanmar)

2 – S&M moved to their Sule Pagoda road premise after the war, in 1947. Which presumes they stayed at the Sofaer/Randeria address until then.

3 – The Mookerdum family can trace their roots in Myanmar as far back as 1819 and are of Turkish-Persian descent.

Here is an image taken in 1983 of the last Sule shop (Green signage with white letters above the entrance)

Image credit at coyolicatzin

3 thoughts on “Smart and Mookerdum: Hunting for Myanmar’s Lost Bookshop

  1. Well researched and written! I had always wondered about that shop as it had a name out of Harry Potter. Not long until someone uses the name for a new outlet in Yangon. You should get on Facebook and contact the descendants in Germany (consequently Facebook is an amazing resource for Burmese history research, as I’m sure you know). Anyways, well done.

  2. Thanks. I’ve always thought of having my own bookshop in Yangon (I even know the exact building I would have it in). Might be a bit cheeky to call it after S&M, though like you say, i’m sure someone else will – i wonder how that would work with naming copyrights?

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