It is a space you find by habit and not by chance; here memory triumphs over knowledge; and its narrow dinginess has over the decades entwined itself to the city’s literary heritage: Chowk Corner, opposite Town Hall, houses 11 old book shops that have survived over a century, hand in hand. Run by third generation owners today, the book shops have established an intricate network of readers, book lovers, students, scrap paper dealers, and old book shops in other cities.

“About 50 years ago, we used to sell books in Latin, French, Bengali, Malayalam, Sanskrit and Hindi as well,” says V. Ganesan, owner, Sri Baba Book Centre. With the demand for other language books falling, the shops began stocking mainly Tamil and English titles. “Today, high school textbooks and college-level reference books have usurped almost all our sales,” he adds.

A casual scanning of the spines stacked all around the shops reveals a variety of books on engineering, medicine, law, mathematics, science, history, computers, literature, astrology, fiction and traditional medicine. “We have no inventory of the books we stock,” says D. Marimuthu, owner, Kumar Book Shoppe. His grandfather (who set up the shop) could pick out any title from his stacks despite not knowing how to read or write. “It’s all in here,” says Mr. Marimuthu pointing to his head.

The clientele at Chowk Corner has grown younger and more textbook oriented over the years, while the number of customers seeking fiction and Tamil titles has steadily fallen. “Ten years ago, there wouldn’t be space here to even stand on Sundays, and a few customers bought books worth Rs.5,000 or more in a single evening,” recalls S. Murugesan, owner, Sri Angalaparameshwari Book Centre, who rues the city’s loss of literary appetite.

Explaining the diversity in titles, Mr. Murugesan says they get books from various sources like shops in Chennai, Bangalore, Coimbatore, and Madurai; locals looking to sell their old books; and from scrap paper dealers. The shops house a few rare books that were published over 80 to 150 years ago and a collection of Tamil panchangams printed during early 20 century. “Earlier textbooks in particular had a shelf life of at least 20 years but now with newer editions coming out every year, we are incurring huge losses,” says Mr. Ganesan. The books range between Rs.5 and Rs.1,000, and besides buying books, people can resell them here.

About their humble beginnings, the owners recall a time when the books were stacked on the road. It was only 15 years ago that the books moved into shuttered alcoves. Though they have found safer ways to store their books, these 100-year-old book shops face the threat of eviction. As the shops flank the narrow approach to Mohamed Mosque managed by Prince of Arcot Endowment Trust, a case has been filed against them (by the trust) demanding they clear out.

“With this area becoming a prime commercial area with mushrooming showrooms, it is now beyond our means to find another space, even on rent, in the vicinity,” says Mr. Ganesan. The shop owners hope that Madurai Bench of the High Court, where the case is pending, will rule in favour of history and the city’s love for old books.