|© Prashant C. Trikannad|
Secondhand books are like antique furniture. They have a musty but pleasing smell, great monetary value, and are much sought-after by discerning readers and serious collectors. But just as it's not easy to buy old furniture, it's not that simple to get hold of forgotten and out-of-print books. You have to establish contacts with used booksellers over several years, like a news reporter cultivating his source for a scoop or a cop working an informant for a tip on an elusive gangster. Once you have a mole or two in the used book trade, you can get almost any title you want and tick them off your wish-list.
I remember every secondhand book or comic-book I have bought over the past three decades, and it hasn’t been easy.
Some years ago, I visited a prominent new bookstore in South Mumbai to pick up a 1995 edition of DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favourite Comic Book Heroes by Les Daniels, a well-known historian of comic books. The 256-page hardback—described as "The complete story of America's favourite heroes and their talented and dedicated creators"—was on sale for the magical price of Rs 450 ($9). Naturally, I was elated. However, I resisted the temptation to buy the book. I thought I could use the money for something more useful, and walked away. When it comes to books, you can’t be blind all the time; sometimes you’ve got to be practical, too.
It was just as well.
A few weeks later, I spotted a near-mint edition of the volume at a pavement bookseller in Fort-Fountain area, a central business district about 7 km from the bookstore. It was sandwiched between an airtight stack of academic journals and coffee-table books. "It's yours for Rs 150," said the bookseller who knew his books better than I did. I offered him Rs 100. We finally settled for Rs 125 ($2.5). It was a bargain I would've been a fool to turn down. Of course, it helped that the bookseller was a "friend" of many years.
Not long after, I stumbled across a fine — and rare for me — edition of The Penguin Book of Comics by Englishmen George Perry and Alan Aldrige, 1967—a 272-page volume chronicling the evolution of British and American comic books. While Perry wrote the text, Aldridge designed the cover and the illustrations. The book analyses the rise and fall of comics in mid-20th century in the wake of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code, and the influence of comic strips and comic books on popular culture, and entertainment such as art, films, and television.
Until the mid-nineties, booksellers lined the footpaths in that part of South Mumbai. Today, there are fewer than a dozen, thanks to eviction drives by the municipal corporation. Interestingly, the civic officer in charge of one such operation left the booksellers alone even as he went after other hawkers in the area. "Books are Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning and knowledge). I want people to buy and read books," he told me at the time. Since the turn of the century many sellers have dumped books—that few people are reading, let alone buying—for more lucrative goods like mobile phone accessories. Book collectors like me were the losers.
Secondhand books are not as elusive as you think they are. You have to keep your eyes open, know where to look. Sometimes they can be right under your nose, other times you have to sniff them out like a wolf sniffing out its prey. After years of browsing, I can home in on a ‘wanted’ title like some kind of a heat-seeking missile. All it takes is a quick, sweeping glance of stacks upon stacks of pavement books, provided the titles are displayed prominently. With practice, you can hone book-spotting into an art.
Some of the most rewarding secondhand book haunts in my city of 18 million are raddiwalas. These hole-in-the-wall paper marts, dotting the island city and its extended suburbs, are more than dusty repositories of old newspapers, plastic bottles, and assorted junk. You never know what reading treasures you will find there. While a few organised paper marts know the value of good books and pass them on to professional booksellers, most stack up books near the entrance and sell them cheap.
Like an archaeologist digging for bones, I have been prospecting raddiwalas for well over two decades, and rather successfully too. I once bought a dozen rare Phantom and Mandrake comics, under the Indrajal imprint, from a paper mart close to my home for Rs 10 each ($0.16), almost as good as free.
Obviously, the raddiwala didn't know their real value considering that owner Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd, publishers of The Times of India, stopped printing Indrajal Comics in 1990. The result: booksellers and individual collectors have been quoting obscene figures for the comics which, apart from Lee Falk's Phantom and Mandrake, included Indian artist Abid Surti's hero Bahadur (the Brave), Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, Allen Saunders' Kerry Drake and Mike Nomad, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, and Phil Corrigan, and Steve Dowling's Garth.
Some of the other prized books I bought secondhand over two decades ago, and still cherish, are Art Spiegelman’s Maus (I & II), the 160-page The Science Fiction Book: An Illustrated History by Franz Rottensteiner, a hardback illustrated edition of Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000 by Isaac Asimov, Cows of Our Planet: A Far Side Collection by Gary Larson, Sudden paperbacks by British writer Oliver Strange, a hardback of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Calvin and Hobbes volumes, and dozens of DC and Marvel comics including pocket-size war and western comic-books. Back then, it wasn’t easy to cough up money for a new Gary Larson or a Bill Watterson.
In this age of Amazon and Ebooks, the secondhand book trade is almost dying. Until it does (though I really hope it doesn’t), I will continue to hunt down elusive and priceless fiction and nonfiction. So far I have been lucky, managing to find a few gems every year. The secret to a productive secondhand-book hunt is patience and perseverance—and sometimes luck, when wanted titles leap out at you when you aren't even looking. Those are the ones I like best.