Seller of used books Alwar is back after a long illness, back where he belongs, says Lalithasai

Alwar’s famous pavement book store on Luz Church Road looks the same. Hoards of books haphazardly arranged. Titles strikingly eclectic in their range. And of course, a steady stream of bibliophiles through the day. The only conspicuous changes are a newly constructed tin roof and Alwar's new look. After a long illness, Alwar is back sans his trademark flowing white beard: he sports a short one. But his poise is intact and he is still on top of things, rattling off titles to visitors.

“He was hospitalised for a more than a month. His health is ok now and he is able to communicate well with the customers,” says Mary, his wife. His memory still sharp, he is able to grasp the significance of each of the numerous books. This is evident as students stop by to look for books for GRE, TOEFEL, CAT, SAT and other competitive exams.

Sushwanth, an IT professional with a heart given to literature, says, "While on official tour, I spend a day or two in Chennai. I never fail to buy my favorite John Grisham thrillers from this second-hand book shop.”

A few people – most of all, his wife Mary – have played a big part in Alwar’s continuing popularity as a seller of quality second-hand books. Mary can’t read a word, but can communicate in English, an ability that helps deal with non-Tamil speaking buyers. “I worked as a sweeper in a convent at Bangalore," she says, explaining where this skill comes from.

Going by the designs on their covers, she sorts out books on engineering and information technology. And when an old man steps into the shed, she hands him an old panchagam. "I can spot religious books too," she says proudly.

Alwar is also at ease navigating the world of books. He reels out names such as Edgar Wallace, P. G. Wodehouse and Alexandre Dumas.

There is a demand for old novels, but the overall scenario is bleak. Mary rues the decline in the reading habit. Among other things that worry Mary is the challenge of preserving the huge lot of books in their possession.

"The price of a book is decided by its condition,” says Mary. It is a tough job for Alwar and Mary, but they love doing it.

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