The Bookshop Under the Tree

G. and I went to drop off some books at our favourite Mylapore pavement ‘bookshop’ this afternoon. We also picked up a couple of books for which the owner (one of the sisters who run the shop since their father’s death) declined payment — ‘You are already giving us so many books!’ — but after G. insisted, she agreed to take a token amount.

As we went on to run some errands, I remembered that I wanted a picture of the shop, which is basically a makeshift structure with stacks of books heaped under a thick plastic sheet, laid out on a broad pavement under a tree, hemmed in by food stalls. On the way back, I asked the owner if I could take a photo. She readily agreed.

‘It isn’t enough to take a photo! You should know the story of this place.’

I turned to see an elderly gentleman holding a book he had just purchased — he wasn’t displeased or disapproving, but eager to talk about a passion of his. He wore a shirt and a veshti that had seen better days, and carried a small black airbag that hung limp from his right shoulder. But he was on an expedition; no doubt the bag would fill up soon as he journeyed through used book shops.

I told him that I had once spoken to the sister of the lady who was at the shop today, and that I knew their father had established it.

‘Take a photo of those pictures! Azhwar and his wife Mary amma, they used to run this shop. It is eighty (sic) years old and I’ve been coming here for five decades. Many famous people have come here. G. Thilagavathi, the first female IPS officer. Anna. Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetty — he probably has half the number of books at Connemara — a great patron of BAPASI (Booksellers and Publishers Association of South India).

‘I have over a thousand books at home myself. I can find rare books here. Where else will you find something like this?’ — picking up a booklet on Buddhism and purchasing it immediately. ‘Back then, the city offered to build Azhwar a proper shop with shelves and he refused. He came from Villupuram and started off as a light boy. He said he could manage only a pavement shop.’

His eyes filmed over with nostalgia. ‘I used to bargain with Mary amma. She’d ask me for Rs 200, knowing that I would bring down the price to Rs 70. “Nyayama idhu (Is this fair), Mary amma?” I’d ask.’

The gentleman’s excitement was palpable in his eyes and his voice. He truly loved his books — buying them, reading them, making friends with people in the business, having conversations. He told us about his uncle, an advocate who had lived nearby and visited the shop at least three times every week. ‘He was a voracious reader and wrote a lot — his letters to the editor were published regularly in the Hindu’ — that famous Mylapore pastime.

‘He sometimes came twice a day and never left without finding something he wanted,’ said the owner, as she finished dealing with another customer and joined the conversation.

G. nudged me to ask the gentleman about bookshops in Chennai, because I often complain that I don’t know where to go when I want a good browse. The man obliged, talking about his haunts in Mylapore, Moore Market, and on Mount Road, referring to a number of polite ‘boys’ who managed these shops. ‘I can guide you now if you are going to Mount Road,’ he said, as he explained that he was going there in search of certain books on spirituality. However, as we had other plans, we took down the names he told us — more to follow after our own visits!

Reiterating how this shop was a part of the varalaaru (history) of Chennai city and a source of rare books, he said, ‘You know Madras Week is coming up soon? This bookshop is a perennial question in the pictorial round of the quiz. They show a photo and ask what this place is. This is a famous, lucky shop. Kairaasi. Students buy R D Sharma and R S Aggarwal books from here, they are all now settled in the US and the UK.’ I never tire of hearing how the pinnacle of success for our families is supposed to be settling in certain countries, never mind that we are happy with our lives here. ‘And you also see that they are offering such great service to middle-class people. A new copy of R D Sharma costs Rs 300–400. They can buy it for Rs 200 here. That is so much money saved for a middle-class person!’

Gradually, remembering that he wanted certain periodicals, he turned to the owner. Meanwhile, G. and I looked through the copy of E F Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful that the man had pointed to during our conversation.

‘This is an important book on economics. You can’t find this easily [in shops].’ (He had already mentioned how you have to wait for days after ordering a book online, speaking like a true reader who wants their book right now.) ‘Don’t mistake the title for anything else, it is a book on economics.’

Small is Beautiful had shown up frequently in my searches for books on another famous Schumacher, and I was therefore familiar with the title. But we pulled it out of the stack now and G. looked through it, ‘economics’ being music to his ears. We decided to get it, simply for the circumstances that had led us to stumble upon it. Incidentally, my last visit had yielded a tattered copy of James Allen’s book on the 1998 F1 season, Schumacher: Driven to Extremes, just before the launch of the Netflix documentary, too.

So here we are now, sated on a Saturday evening, proud owners of three new (used) books, steadily making our way through our own overflowing library, but also looking forward to our next visit to the bookshop under the tree. I only hope that it is not affected by the construction of the metro beginning in full earnest. It is a piece of our history, both social and personal.

PS. The bookshop (not in the current location) is seventy years old. Read more here and here.

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