The old bookshop complex in Chennai.

It is still popularly remembered by its old association with the heritage ‘Moore Market’ complex that used to abut Chennai Railway Station. The book vendors have moved on and occupied a building called ‘Lily Pond Complex’ that is just next door but reminds one of godown space and is poorly maintained.

And yet it is conveniently located near the Railway Station and for ardent book lovers the chance discovery of old favourites, not readily available otherwise, is certainly an incentive. It is interesting to note that the vendors may not be well read themselves but have developed a working knowledge of popular authors and book titles. Add to it the option to bargain a bit and one can see why some people don’t mind the ambience and go about as ‘business as usual’ to pick up their books.

The shops tend to specialize in providing books for Medicine, Engineering, Computers followed by books for Entrance Exams and these form the bulk of their transactions. So very few shops cater to customers looking for popular fiction. You are quickly re-directed to one such option. I met a ‘father-and-son’ duo in one of them and rather falteringly queried, ‘You have any P D James novels?’ There was a good reason to be less than hopeful to elicit a prompt response – unlike the book wallahs in the stretch outside Flora Fountain near Churchgate station in Mumbai, my past experience in Chennai had not been all that encouraging. He nodded and went inside to search his collection.

He returned with 4 P D James novels and I was suitably impressed. There were couple of them that I had not read but one of them was ‘Hard Bound’ version in what I would regard as large font for reading. It is because we are so used to paperback versions and reading the tiny font. Can I have a paperback version of this one? I ventured further. He gave a grin as if he was used to the lunacy of customers asking for the moon and replied in negative. He then made an interesting offer, ‘Take it for reading once and if you don’t want to keep it, you can trade it for another book with a small fee’. Now this was sure a novel offer and even before I could react, he said he will come back with more books that are likely to interest me.

I have never been propositioned before like this and so waited curiously as he returned with a handful of ‘Agatha Christie & Ruth Rendell’ novel and even one of Inspector Ghote by H R F Keating. I sure was impressed by his acumen and struck a deal.

His father was not very impressed by our exchange and said that the young fellow wasted too much time on small and infrequent customers like me. I commented that it was good that he could identify books in particular genre. The father was amused and commented that he could not read them and such skill may be useful in a library or a proper bookstore – it didn’t amount much to in his trade. The son was used to being ticked off by his father and just hurried me on with a wave.

I felt sad for the young man who was otherwise working in such sordid surroundings and mechanically stacking the text books. I happened to return later and had planned to exchange the Hard Bound book as it did not fit well in my collection and was difficult to carry as well as read. Unfortunately he was not there and I only met his father. He did not say much but allowed me to take another book in exchange. He softened a bit and mentioned that he admonished his son the other day as really these ‘bit-transactions’ don’t help much and the focus should be on the ‘bread-and-butter’ of their business. Truly spoken like a grizzled veteran with years of experience.

I do visit Chennai periodically and look forward to visiting the shop again to possibly meet the young man again just to encourage him and do a bargain deal.

Photographer:Dan Herrick Collection:Lonely Planet Images Courtesy: Getty Images
Photographer:Dan Herrick
Collection:Lonely Planet Images
Courtesy: Getty Images

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