Self-taught scholars and storehouses of knowledge in roadside shacks at the old books market

On a gloomy Saturday evening we are on the Madharkhan Tabedar Lane armed with a long, challenging list of book titles. The power goes off but M.Murugan takes on the task. A faint torchlight in hand, he plunges into his hovel stacked with thousands of books. He squints hard for titles, authors and editions. He beckons and we too enter the Amman Book Centre -- one at a time.

It is a long, narrow room in which it is hard enough for a person to stand straight, leave alone walk around. But Murugan goes even deeper into the dungeon and disappears.

We can only push ourselves sideways, taking care not to even breathe hard or brush against the delicate, leaning towers of books on either side. There is an overbearing musty smell. A small shelf emits light. Through the piles of books we see a battery-operated lamp flickering in front of a small Ganapati idol and photos of deities.

Barely 180 seconds on Murugan holds aloft a chemistry guide. In the pitch dark we see his white teeth flash as he signals us to move out. Many customers anxiously wait outside his shop. We squeeze ourselves out and meet college professors and retired principals, elderly thaathaas, a few college students mostly studying engineering, one preparing for MBA and the other an architecture student looking for journals and magazines on design and planning. Each waves a chit.

“Professional and new books are expensive at regular bookstores,” offers one young customer. “So I regularly come here.” We again watch Murugan swishing in and out of his 30 square feet shop. And always he emerges with the right book in hand!

Murugan goes hunting for books into his shop at least 20 times a day. “It is 25 years’ experience. I do it more for self-satisfaction than money. When students clear semesters, our little efforts also go into it.”

Recalls his boss Kumaravel, the second-generation owner of Madurai’s oldest book shop, “My father sold old books on the platform in 1952. Students used to throng this lane to sell old books and buy new ones. A doctor gives medicine for the sick, I give books to people with a thirst for knowledge.”

Seller-speak

We peer into the next shop and the next. Each shop owner holds a similar pride in the job he does. Most shops are just as small if not smaller. The world inside is ruled by novels, memoirs, whodunits, quiz books, classics, encyclopaedias, biographies…

In his heap of around 3,000, Srinivasan has everything – from John Grisham to Harry Potter to Paulo Coelho to Alvin Toffler and New England cookbooks. He has 20,000 books in his godown and brings a fraction each week to the shop here. That’s enough to pull in booklovers from even neighbouring districts. His collection is eclectic. Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Jaws — The Revenge, a book about Prince Charles as a young bachelor, Paul E.Erdman’s The Last Days of America, Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, a handy hardbound titled The Anatomy of Printing. “Who said literature is boring to people?” Srinivasan asks. “If not James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, then Bill Gates and Deepak Chopra.”

A few feet away near the defunct New Cinema is K.C.M. Book Stall, owned by second grade drop-out K.Chandramohan. Familiar with every Shakespeare play, he is like an audio guide for literature students. “Little did I think of doing business with books which I hated as a child,” he says at 70.

The Madharkhan Tabedar Lane has 15-odd shops. There are 20 more near the New Cinema, a dozen on West Marret Street and a few in Pudumandapam. These are the hubs of old book centres in the city. Yesteryear’s thriving book market on pavements is gone. The book bazaar is the only source of income for the 50-odd book sellers. Four years ago they formed the Old Books Shop Owners Association and got a State loan to set up permanent stalls, reducing losses due to bad weather.

The members feel a larger organized space would allow books and sellers to be better arranged. Like the Moore Market in Chennai or the one in Coimbatore, a similar one-stop venue will be a big improvement over the way it is now in Madurai.

M.Balasubramanian of Shanthi Books on West Marret Street took over from his father, who started the business in 1965. He lords over six shops, 15 employees and more than 50,000 books earning Rs. 1 lakh during lean months and four to five times that during semester opening and examinations.

Goldmine of books

Subramanian’s stalls are a great find for those who need cheap ‘course books’ and for buyers of popular titles in Tamil, English, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. The secret of his appeal is that he sells books at one-third the original cost price.

“The books are not inherently cheaper. I share my profit with customers,” says Subramanian, who networks with 100 junk dealers. Periodically he purchases 500 kilos of books from the kabadiwallahs for Rs.20 to 30 per kilo. “We often get multiple copies of the same title. Only a sample is in the shop after segregating.”

“You can find anything you want here,” says Krishnan, retired school headmaster. A regular for the past three decades, he says, “I buy books for my students at an affordable price. I never return disappointed.”

The Barani Book Centre stands apart in stocking Hindi books. Says R.C. Pandey from Uttar Pradesh, “I am a great fan of Prem Chand and I missed reading him when I moved here 40 years ago. Now I get Hindi novels by Maithili Sharan Gupt and Harivansh Rai Bachchan.”

Showing an old book Varusha Naatu Jameen Kathai by Vadaveera Ponnaiya, the adjacent shop owner Guruswami says, “I sell only photocopies of such books. History books are rare and valuable.”

“Our professors refer us to these shops,” says Dinesh, an engineering student. “As the syllabi differ every year, we also need old editions.” His friend Jayakarthik agrees. “Out of the ten books we came for, we got nine and the best part is the price.”

Not all books at these shops are second-hand. Many publishers sell old editions at lower prices. These sellers sometimes also sell in bulk to libraries, acting as distributors themselves.

Despite competition from trendy retailers, these book sellers have survived because of their customer-friendliness. “Informed book enthusiasts who want value for their money come to us because they believe the selection in our book shops is good,” says Subramanian. “They come to get their favourite books at cheaper rates. How can I disappoint them?”

(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).