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NO LESS QUALITY: Customers at a second-hand book shop in Moore Market in Chennai. —
NO LESS QUALITY: Customers at a second-hand book shop in Moore Market in Chennai. —

Priscilla Jebaraj

The 10 days of the fair are peak season for their business

CHENNAI: Kalavathi Sekar has been visiting the Chennai Book Fair for the last 10 years, but this is the first time she has come to the second-hand book stalls that crowd the pavements across the road from the fair venue. “It’s such a bargain here. I can pick up 10 books here for the price of one inside,” marvels the Thiruvanmiyur resident, who is buying romance novels for herself and children’s classics for her daughters.

“I used to read mostly from the lending library, but these are books that I can afford to buy for myself,” says S. Kalaivani, a computer professional, flipping through the mystery and thriller novels on sale.

K. Venkat Sekhar, a bank executive, has several bags full of management and computer guides from the fair, but he is still browsing the second-hand stalls. “I’m looking for older magazines and out-of-print or out-of-stock titles that I can’t find at the fair or bookstores,” he says.

For the booksellers who have set up shop on the Pachaiyappa’s College pavements, the 10 days of the fair are peak season for their business. On Monday, they will pack up and return to the pavements of Anna Salai, Pycrofts Road and Besant Nagar, some of the major concentrations for second-hand book sellers in the city. Business is not so good the rest of the year.

“So many knowledgeable customers used to come for our old books. Nowadays, most of them want only comics or textbooks. TV shows and internet have hurt the reading habit,” complains K. Nandagopal, who has had a stall near Devi Theatre for the last 15 years.

R. Subburayalu, who has had a stall near the Anna Salai Head Post Office for 30 years, says that the craze for the latest titles has forced him to start a new line.

“Almost all Mount Road booksellers now sell ‘duplicate’ books as well as second-hand...Harry Potter has pushed out Enid Blyton,” he says. While the boy wizard’s adventures are most popular in pirated version – now costing merely Rs. 50 per book – Paulo Coelho, Sidney Sheldon, Robin Sharma and Chetan Bhagat are other popular authors. Arvind Adiga’s Booker Prize winner “The White Tiger” is now the best-seller in pirated form, priced at Rs. 75.

The Mecca of second-hand books is still Moore Market, although sales have fallen since the 1985 fire destroyed the old complex. Although a new Lily Pond complex was opened nearby in 1991, the number of second-hand booksellers has fallen from 150 to about 50.

“Only older people come in looking for good English literature or for an R.K.Narayan or Rajaji title. All the young people are only looking for cheap textbooks,” rues P. Chandrashekhar, who has run the Maheshwar Book Shop there from the 1970s.

“Margins have fallen from 50 per cent to 20 per cent, and these youngsters want it for even less. They say that otherwise, they will xerox it,” says A. Nithinanandham, another seller.

Booksellers have learnt to keep textbooks and popular fiction in the front of their display.

N. Subramaniam, who joined his father’s second-hand book business 50 years ago at the age of 15, brings out older titles only on demand. He can show the discerning reader his collection of Kingsley Amis, John Galsworthy and Leo Tolstoy, or pull out dictionaries in Portuguese, Malay or Sinhalese.

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