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When Select Bookshop went to Boston

Whether he was in Bangalore or in Boston, the favourite hobby of K.B.K. Rao, the founder of Select Bookshop, remained browsing through books. His son recollects a touching episode.

I WOULD like to share an incident that happened with my father, K.B.K. Rao, founder of Select Bookshop. This happened while he was staying with me in America.

The incident, which took place in 1976 (when my father was 78), demonstrates his enormous love for books.

A cousin of mine lived in Boston and we decided to drive up to his place for the weekend.

Boston is about 400 miles from Matawan, New Jersey, where we lived.

We drove non-stop and were all obviously tired and looking forward to a hearty breakfast at my cousin's place (puri-sagu, I was told by my cousin).

As we entered the house, my niece Suma was about to go out while her mother was asking her to stay back since we had just come in. My father asked Suma where she was heading. Suma said it was to a library sale. That was all my father had to hear. Immediately, he put on his shoes and was ready to accompany Suma. My mother implored him to take rest for a while and to go after breakfast. But, my father couldn't wait. My father, Suma, and I went to the library in two cars.

It was a huge book sale and they had placed the books on numerous tables in the parking lot. I was told there were over 6,000 books.

It was a hot summer day but people were all over the place buying books in bagfuls and carrying them to their cars. There was someone on the loudspeaker making announcements encouraging people to buy more and more books. My father had never seen anything like that. He was like a child in a candy store.

He immediately rushed to a table to examine the books and started making his selection. I was watching him with great interest as he gave the books a professional glance over. The announcer was saying that all hardbound volumes were priced at a dollar each, while the pocket books were priced 50 cents each.

There were only a couple of hours left for the sale, said the announcer. Afterwards, all the unsold books had to be carried back again, which they did not want to do. I don't know if my father heard any of those words, as he was too busy making his selection and keeping them aside.

As it neared closing time the crowd started to thin. There were just about a dozen people here and there going through the books but there still appeared to be 5,000 books left. My father continued his selections meticulously. It looked like he had set aside a couple of hundred books at that time.

The announcer came back again and sounded worried that so many books were still unsold. He reduced the prices drastically to 25 cents and five cents, respectively.

I went up to the announcer and asked what he would do with the unsold books. He shrugged and said it was indeed a pity, as they had to work the rest of the afternoon and evening to take them back to the library basement. He said wistfully how great it would be if someone would take them all away. I offered to do just that. Initially he thought I was joking and when he saw me, he knew that I meant it. He thanked me profusely and said that we would wait until 2 p.m., the closing time, and after that I could take away whatever books were left. He picked up the mike and announced to the few people who were still there that it was their last chance and they could carry whatever books they wanted for a dollar.

While all this was going on, my father continued with the selections at a feverish pace, probably still thinking that hardbound books were a dollar a piece and paperbacks were fifty cents each.

I walked up to my father. It was a big moment for me. I had made a tremendous deal to acquire several thousand books for nothing. I imagined how happy I would make him when I would tell him about the killing I made. I was proud of my Yankee business prowess.

I told my father. Initially, he could not grasp what I was telling him. I had to explain to him again slowly. Finally he understood. I will never forget the look on his face.

It was one of extreme pain and sadness, the kind you see on people's faces when they lose their loved ones.

He tried to say something but his voice was failing him. Then he said: "Books andre yenu kasana? Why do they treat it like that?" He moved away from me and sat down on a nearby chair.

I felt disgusted with my Yankee swagger and myself. I left him alone with his thoughts and walked up to the library man (the announcer) and wrote him a check for 400 dollars as a donation to the library.

Eventually we managed to transport all the books to my house. The next couple of weeks were the most enjoyable for my father.

He classified and reclassified the books in several categories — books that are to be sent to India immediately; books that are to be sent to India but could wait; books that he wanted me to keep for my personal library; books that could be given away to Salvation Army.

I still remember how he would come into the kitchen from the garage carrying some book in hand and telling me about it.

Once it was John Ruskin on modern painters, another time it was a little book on the art of ivory carvings. He found a valuable set of Harvard classics of English translations of Sanskrit literature and large and beautifully illustrated volumes of Arabian Nights.

He also found some rare editions of his favourite Katherine Mansfield's diaries.

When he went back to India, people would ask him what he had enjoyed most in the U.S.. Was it Disney World? Was it Niagara Falls? And my father would mumble some answer. But my mother said the real answer was that library sale in Boston.


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