A flight of stone steps lead down to a narrow lane crammed with bookshops on one side, while piles of books arranged neatly on metal shelves line the pavement on the other side. At 12 noon, this lane inside Pudhu Mandapam opposite the east tower of the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple is agog with activity.

This is the academic and text book hub of Madurai. “Most of the shops here are run by third generation families,” says R. Rajanand, who owns 100-year-old Jayam Book Store. There are towering stacks of guides for engineering subjects, school textbooks and guides for competitive examinations such as GMAT, AIEEE and CAT.

“This year, we’ve been getting orders for books that help people prepare for government examinations that include the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) and Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC) Group IV examination,” says Mr. Rajanand who also owns another bookshop outside the locality. “Down south, this is the best place to find academic books,” he adds.

Most shopkeepers in the ‘book lane’ say they have a huge collection of novels as well. “But this being the start of the academic year, we cater to the demand for textbooks and guides and keep the other books away since there is a dearth of space,” says Anand, a bookseller who sits amid piles of engineering guides.

A vinyl signboard outside a bookshop reads ‘10% discount for students with membership card.’ C. Madhan, the owner, explains: “Most of our customers are college students who come to us throughout the year for reference books for different subjects. If they buy a membership card, they get discounts for repeat purchases.” A good ploy to retain customers.

“There has been greater demand for college books than school books in the past few years. The government schools distribute text books free of cost or at a subsidised rate. Even private schools have their own distributors to supply books. As a result, most of our business comes from selling college guides and books,” says Mahesh, another bookseller.

Outside the hub

In sharp contrast to the bustling book market in Pudhu Mandapam is a shop tucked away in Tallakulam on the other side of the Vaigai. Ganesan Bookstall is a small non-descript shop sandwiched between two petty outlets. Books from the shop spill on to the pavement, but are neatly stacked on a table. “Second hand book stores across the city do brisk business when a new academic year begins. Our books are a lot cheaper than new ones and we make sure that the ones we sell are not in a bad condition,” says its owner Ganesan.

A customer stops and asks for a copy of the Class X matriculation Tamil textbook. Ganesan scans a pile near the entrance and fishes out an old, dog-eared copy for which the customer pays less than half the original price.

“We go to Bangalore, Chennai, Tiruchi, Nagercoil and Tuticorin to source books from the markets there since not many second-hand academic books are available here,” he says. “If customers request us for new books, we source them from the Pudhu Mandapam book market,” he adds.

Ganesan echoes the booksellers at Pudhu Mandapam that the demand for school books has come down. “Most school students buy guides only for the latest question papers that come with them. So books from the previous years almost immediately go out of demand,” he says.

Despite having studied only up to Class X, Ganesan is able to rattle off names of the must-have guides for Plus One students to a customer. “I know the names of most of the school books I have, but college books are hard to remember. I usually ask students to look for the books themselves,” he says, pointing to stacks of books arranged inside his shop.

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