Life | The Old Book Shop

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The Old Book Shop
Text by Anita Nair and Illustration by Abhijeet Kini
Published: Volume 16, Issue 2, February, 2008

Old books seek me out; they talk to me. Only once did I fail to listen, confides Anita Nair. And therein hangs a tale

One of the disadvantages of living where I do is that I spend an inordinate amount of time merely getting from point A (read that as my home in Bangalore) to point B, C, D, the entire alphabet, in fact. As a natural reaction to this pointless waste of time, I try and avoid impulse trips. Instead, I chalk out various days in the month for various things. Being this boring blue stocking (or almost), my jaunts to the city do not include pulse-racing activities. No assignations of passion for me nor does it include a few holes of golf or an investors conference. Instead most of it has to do with books. Book buying, book returning, book launches, book parties…. The book rules my day, my life and, it occurs to me, my everyday pursuits too.

For someone as steeped in books as I am, I usually deal with my literary angst in old, old-book shops. There is a calm there that is seldom found in regular book shops. The past looms allowing no peer pressure, no posters announcing the arrival of yet another major new talent, no newspaper clippings detailing fabulous advances, no best-seller lists, no need to schmooze…just corridors of dusty, musty old books by either obscure or very dead authors. In fact, to quote Fran Lebowitz: ‘I prefer dead writers because you don’t run into them at parties’…or book shops.
Old, old-book shops, not expensive antiquarian types, but the kind where Perry Mason sits cheek by jowl with Mrs Beeton, who snuggles up to Dr Faust, have always had a strange effect on me. For one, a rush that’s akin to free falling. A feeling of not knowing what next, as one cruises through the hallways of print. The romance of chancing upon a find, the excitement of discovery, the rush of blood to the head, sweet fulfilment....

Every time I travel to a new place, the first thing I do is to look for old books. So that whether it is at the corner of Jonker Street in Melaka or on West Hill Road in Kozhikode or a flea market in New Orleans or a barrow of books in Connaught Place or a lone shelf in the back room of a café in Kodaikanal, I know a firm sense of belonging when I get there. As if time can be captured in my palm by the very act of holding a book whose pages emit the sweet and cloying fragrance of age. As if by inhaling this intoxicating fragrance, part memory, part organic, I can feel a tie bonding me to that book. And so for the moment I cease to be author. Teller of stories. Peddler of imagination. I am the supreme creation of the God of books. A reader and a book lover.

A long time ago when Chennai was Madras and Anna Salai, Mount Road, alongside the Central Station was this elegant red building called Moore Market that housed many a bargain. From genuine leather shoes that fell apart by the time you had walked past Ripon building to Rolex watches that shed gold flakes to silk saris that shrunk when you perspired. But, what Moore Market also held in its vast innards were old books. Little cubbyholes stacked high with books that were laden with dust and anamneses and towards the front their more robust and popular cousins. In one such cubby hole, between a shop that dealt with lingerie – blue and pink frilly panties – and another that sold cardboard-camouflaged-to-look like-leather valises, I found what to this day is my prized possession – a first edition of Sorrell and Son by Warwick Deeping. Only then, a first edition meant little except that it was so tattered that I got it for almost nothing.

Every once in a while, my brother Sunil and I would take the suburban train from Avadi to Madras Central; we were in the city to shop for clothes. But I would insist on staying within Moore Market, quite content to settle for cheap accoutrements and use the extra for books. I would browse till a mysterious force would lead me to a find in a pile. Sometimes, it was merely an author I had always wanted to read; sometimes, it was a book that no one obviously had wanted but it still was an exemplary piece of writing…. I never left Moore Market without a book or a sense of triumph.

Old books seek me out; they talk to me. And only once did I fail to listen. While holidaying in Kerala, Sunil and I were invited to take first pickings from the bookcase of a family emigrating to the USA. Mohan, the acquaintance who took us there was hoping we would buy enough to satisfy seventy-eight year old Chacko and he, in turn, would gift Mohan the dinner service he coveted. Chacko flung open an inner door and my heart free fell.

“All these are my son Cherian’s books. He always shut himself up in this room and read. Once he left for Baltimore, we kept the room locked and opened it just once a month to dust it. I would have liked to have taken the books with me but he said no. I don’t read English books or I would have kept a few for myself. I’m sure you will find many interesting books here,” Chacko gleamed with pride.

Cherian, ardent reader, mechanical engineer and perhaps a solitary soul was a porn aficionado. He had the most extensive and explicit collection of pornography I had ever seen. Covered in brown paper and indexed quite neatly with titles like Screw, Blow…. Sunil and I looked at each other and grinned. Cherian’s books called, beckoned and gestured quite rudely but I ignored them till I saw a couple of Moravias tucked away in a top shelf. And then on a whim because the name of the author Agnyar Mykle appealed to me, I picked that book. “These will do,” I said.
Mohan threw me a dirty look and Chacko didn’t even bother to hide his annoyance. “Why? Don’t you like the books? Maybe they are too serious for you, huh?” he tossed, at our hastily retreating backs.