Saturday, 22 February 2014

Footpath libraries


On October 21, 2013, in a post titled Of old books and dying telegrams, I wrote about the famed secondhand bookstalls of south Mumbai, located about 2 km (1.25 miles) from my office and 20 km (12.40 miles) from where I live. The following pictures are of more of these bookstalls situated outside American Express Bank at Flora Fountain, or Hutatma Chowk (Martyrs' Square). So far the municipal corporation has left them alone. Dozens of others on opposite footpaths were not so lucky; they were evicted a few years ago. 


The booksellers don't read books but they know their books—ask for a title and they'll most likely have it. If they don't then they'll get it for you.


One of the good things about these footpath booksellers is that they also lend books on a library basis. For instance, you can borrow an Agatha Christie or a P.G. Wodehouse for Rs.100 ($1.60) and keep it for a month. Upon returning it, the bookseller will repay Rs.70 and pocket the balance Rs.30 as reading price. Prices vary depending on the book you borrow. However, before lending you the book, he makes a small notation on the last page, a sort of identification, so he knows you borrowed it from him. He will scribble 100 - 70 = 30 and put his initials next to it. There is no limit on the number of books you can borrow. In case you don't ever return the book, then he keeps Rs.100 as the actual price of the book. In fact, books are lent on the selling price on the assumption that you won't return them. 


The famous St. Thomas Cathedral Church located a few metres away. Built in 1718, it is the first Anglican church in Mumbai (then Bombay). The nearby Churchgate station, the beginning and end of journey for office-goers and local commuters, gets its name from this church.


I seldom buy books from these sellers. If they know their books well, they know their prices even better. I have found other places, especially in the suburbs where I live, where good used books can be found much cheaper. The two John Gardner's James Bond novels I wrote about in the previous post would have cost me at least Rs.50 each (nearly a dollar) as opposed to Rs.20 (less than half a dollar) that I paid in the suburbs. 

© All photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

24 comments:

  1. What an interesting post Prashant. And how I envy the fact that you can still get books for Rs.20. In Delhi, the standard rate nowadays is Rs. 50.

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    1. Neer, thank you. The standard rate for most used books in Mumbai, too, is Rs.50 and above. I have just been lucky with many of the books I purchased at a couple of secondhand bookstalls in the northern suburbs. The city's used books market is nothing compared to the one in Delhi, at Daryaganj I think. I also had occasion to pick up some fine books at an annual institutional sale.

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  2. Prashant: Fascinating. I would love to take a walk through the books.

    Reading your post in the midst of our fierce winter reminded me how different are our respective climates. There could never be outdoor booksellers in Saskatchewan.

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    1. Bill, thank you. You'll unearth a treasure if you walk through those books. I seldom do because I already have a lot to read. The sun beats down hard on the city eight months of the year which makes buying and selling books on the pavements a relatively easy task, even though it is very hot in summer. The booksellers stand their ground during four months of rains, the blue-coloured tarpaulins ensuring good protection for the books. The hawker is a ubiquitous phenomenon in Mumbai selling just about everything that you get in shops.

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  3. What a great post, and a fascinating look at the used booksellers of Mumbai. The photos are wonderful.

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    1. Kelly, thank you. I'm glad you liked the post. There are a couple of other used books haunts that I hope to write about some day. Sadly, traditional used booksellers like these are going to disappear some day. Many have gone already. However, new ones spring up in the most unexpected places. I keep my eyes open.

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  4. This reminds me of Paris and the bookstalls along the Seine. Love them.

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    1. Patti, I've never heard of the bookstalls along the Seine. I'll check them out on the internet. I've heard of the street painters of Paris, though.

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  5. We had about six of these foot path booksellers in an area of Colombo. They were the only source of second hand books for decades. Still there and also doing the lending library business but young people here read mainly stuff for their studies. Very few of them go for general reading so even the booksellers have gone more into the educational stuff.

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    1. Mystica, that's interesting. Most youngsters here buy or borrow academic books too, mainly engineering, medicine, finance, and management, as they are much cheaper than the original. I didn't think of it. Piracy has nearly killed the traditional used books business in Mumbai. Now four out of five booksellers are selling pirated editions of fiction and non-fiction, including new releases, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

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  6. I doubt I would be able to walk past without stopping - even if they were on my route everyday!

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    1. Hi Col! When I worked in that part of the town several years ago, I used to spend much time browsing through the books though I seldom bought any. In those days there were over two dozen of these booksellers, now reduced to less than 10. It felt nice just being among the books. The place is not very far from my office and sometimes I visit these booksellers during lunch hour, mostly to scout for out-of-print comics and novels like westerns.

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  7. Fascinating Prashant and thanks for the splendid photos too - I'd never get to work if I had to walk past those in the morning!

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    1. Sergio, thank you! Secondhand books sold for a song until the 80s and early 90s and then the dollar rate went up making a lot of good books unaffordable. Now the prices have stabilised, and even fallen to an extent, because of the advent of ebooks and pirated books on one hand and decline of readership on the other. For a while the closure of private circulating libraries created a good stock of used books except one wouldn't know where to go looking for them. Most of the used books I buy as cheaply as I do have come from these libraries.

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  8. I love the idea of buying books and selling them back. I can do that here at used bookstores but the buy back price is much lower percentage. Which is one reason we started just donating any we were discarding to a charity book sale. Lovely pictures, and I just very envious.

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    1. Tracy, thank you. The resale books market in Mumbai, too, is not lucrative unless I'm selling rare and out-of-print books and comics. We give away most of our books to charity or whoever might read them. Problem is not many people read these days.

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  9. There used to be lots of these kinds of booksellers in New York City back when I was a teen. Occasionaly I come across one or two on a weekend trip back East. But I've not seen them in any other large city in the US. And never in Chicago, where luckily we still have a few long-lived used bookstores. Once in London on a rainy Sunday afternoon we found a street bookseller who was set up by the National Theater. I liked browsing through the books that day. There's something slightly romantic about buying old books from a street seller rather than in a store.

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    1. Hi John, thanks for sharing your experiences about booksellers, including the street variety, in New York, Chicago, and London. I often read about secondhand bookstores in America and I'm fascinated by, and envious of, the sheer variety of books you can lay your hands on. I enjoy simply browsing through these pavement books though occasionally I might pick up a book or two. They are organised in their own way. What we lack in India are genre-specific bookstores, as in the West, but then I don't think they'd do as well as the general bookstores.

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  10. Such bookshops probably encourage socializing as well. I also enjoyed your observation about the booksellers' business model:

    "If they know their books well, they know their prices even better."

    ===============================
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

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    1. Peter, thanks for visiting and commenting. I appreciate both. I seldom buy used books at high prices because their acquisition has never been a priority for me. There is nothing urgent about it. I bide my time and usually find it elsewhere for half or less than half the price quoted by these pavement booksellers. Currently, the only "must buy" books on my list are British writer Oliver Strange's SUDDEN western series and early comic books.

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  11. I would have a heck of a time passing by these stalls, or staying away from them while I'm supposed to be at work. The pricing would keep me from much buying, but not from looking, in hopes I'd find something irresistible.

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    1. Ron, I'm with you. The only reason I browse through these books is in the hope that I'll find some unusual and out-of-print books. I usually prefer paperbacks as they occupy less space. I seldom look for specific authors or titles.

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  12. These are amazing Prashant. I don't think I could stay away from them and once there I think I would lose all concept of time!

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    1. Rebecca, thank you. I resist the temptation of buying books from these places because I already have too much to read. The sellers know their books, though.

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