On World Book Day, book lovers in the city talk about second-hand booksellers who have enriched their reading experience
Due to various reasons, many stretches in Chennai have lost their second-hand booksellers. For some bibliophiles, this loss is personal — over the years, they have developed bonds of friendship with these hawkers of knowledge.
Someone who has an enviable collection of British and American magazines as well as out-of-edition books after scouring the streets of Madras for decades, Vittal Rao has authored “Vazhvin Sila Unathangal” (December 2011, Narmadha Pathipagam), a work that stands out for its sensitive look at the secondhand booksellers of Madras.
“Most of these sellers were nameless people, but they defined localities. A hearing-impaired man — who was simply called ‘Umaiyan' because of this disability — was an integral part of Mount Road. He sold books on the pavement near the Bharat Insurance building,” recalls Vittal. Writer-illustrator Harry MacLure remembers Perambur Barracks Road — as it was many decades ago — by a seller of English comics and books in a quaint little shop opposite Bhuvaneshwari Theatre.
The sterling qualities these sellers displayed keep their memory alive. They were especially popular for their attitude towards money. “Everything you picked up at his shop came cheap,” says MacLure. Says Vittal: “Karim Bhai, who plied his trade near the Mount Road dharga, was a contented man — he sold on credit. When I was planning on giving him some money as charity in addition to the Rs. 20 I owed him, he passed away unexpectedly. It was 1964, and he had fallen to a virulent flu going around in Madras. Visiting his house with a friend, I gave his eldest son Rs. 100.”
Not just impeccable behaviour, but their knowledge of books endeared these booksellers to their customers. Most second-hand booksellers of that era were not well-read — some were almost illiterate — but they seemed to operate by a sixth sense and would conjure up the requested title.
Writer Ashok Mitran recalls: “Alwar was brilliant. His pavement shop on Luz Chruch Road (which has survived to this day) would have mountain heaps of books. Guided by intuition, he would wade into piles of books and ferret out exactly the one you wanted.”
Impressed with an abridged and illustrated edition of Charles Dickens' “Great Expectations”, Harry wanted to get a copy of the unabridged version. He showed the book to an uneducated seller at Moore Market. “Seven days later, I get a letter in Tamil from this man saying the unabridged version is ready,” says a still-surprised Harry.
Second-hand bookshops also had character, each being identified with specific categories of books and magazines. For old issues of Time magazine and Saturday Evening Post, Vittal went to a Naicker at the old Moore Market. And he relied on a Mudaliar at the same market for a steady supply of Collier's magazines. ‘Umaiyan' on Mount Road appeared to be consciously stocking classic and popular literary books from Britain. Says Vittal: “James Joyce or Somerset Maugham, he had them all!”
While many major roads had clusters of second-hand booksellers, Moore Market was unparalleled in its scale and range. “These bookshops were situated on a long corridor, facilitating easy access to them. English titles — most of them hardbound — accounted for 80 per cent of the books. The rest were made up by Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and other language books. French books would turn up often. Once, I found a very old Greek book.”
Preserving old books
Most of these books were however in a state of disintegration. To preserve them, booklovers often turned to binders. Vittal had a reliable and honest binder in Gopal, who worked for New Century Bookhouse. “He was exceptionally good at breathing new life into dog-eared, torn and disintegrating books. In 1989, he died of a massive stroke. Following his demise, my desire to go in for rare old books actually waned,” says Vittal.
Vittal is similarly shaken whenever he hears about the death of a second-hand bookseller he has known. Behind the books, he always saw a courteous, friendly human being struggling to make ends meet but still living with dignity and integrity.
MISSING PAGES OF THE BOOK STORY
Armenian Street is devoid of its cluster of second-hand pavement bookshops. Gandhi Irwin Road is no longer lined with these booksellers. Sellers of old books that plied their trade in other parts of the city have likewise disappeared.
Rajeshwari Victor, author of “My Life My Choice”, says, “These booksellers, once a part of the landscape, are conspicuous by their absence.”
“When you pass by places known for these book traders and don't find them any more, you just wonder where they have gone,” says writer-illustrator Harry MacLure. “It's nice to know that pavement book sellers of Pycrofts Road are still found there.”
As a result of the Corporation's drive to clear pavements for pedestrians, these booksellers have been accommodated in temporary facilities that are installed around the ‘New Moore Market' building in the Lily Pond Complex.
Says Rajeshwari: “Second-hand booksellers serve a definite purpose. Most books — especially novels — are bought for a single-reading, and people don't see a need to hold on to them forever. As a result, they may prefer to buy these books second-hand. It's better to have such book shops in you neighbourhood than having to make a trip to a centralised market every time.”