Friday, November 11, 2005

Second-hand? Yes. Second-best? No

They may be second-hand, but definitely not second-best. We’re talking books here. Mumbai’s obsession with old and rare books is now at its peak. There are at least two dozen bookshops — and no, we’re not including raddiwallas — in the metropolis that deal exclusively in such books. Leading the pack is the legendary New and Second-Hand Bookstall (NSB), near Metro Cinema.
Established in the early 20th century, NSB continues to be the favourite haunt of every resident and visiting literary aficionado. And the bookshop is virtually a literary minefield, where a customer is expected to hunt for the books he seeks on his own. The staffers are rarely of any help since few of them know about the treasures the shop contains.
Walter Z Sodenberg, a German national who lives and writes in Cambridge, was in Mumbai recently. He talks of NSB: “I have come across the most amazing collection of books [at NSB], and the prices are unbelievably reasonable. For instance, I’ve managed to lay my hands on the first prints of H G Wells’ works, which I don’t think I could find anywhere else in the world. Here I found not only reprints, but also first editions, for just Rs 125 each. That’s just US $3.50. It’s amazing.”
On a recent visit to the city, Olivier Todd, celebrated French writer and Albert Camus’ official biographer, said: “In Bombay (oops! I can never pronounce the new name), I could find a great variety of books, including French classics, which I bought for a very reasonable price. I might have had to shell out an astronomical sum if I had to purchase these from Milan or Paris — that is if they are available there at all.”
And the tribe of Sodenbergs and Todds is on the rise. In a survey conducted by some students of St Xavier’s College recently, the demand for second-hand and rare books went up by 30 per cent in just last year. Most people who were interviewed for the students’ project said they bought these books more as collectors’ items, rather than just to read them.
Sample some of the gems that have changed hands, courtesy these bookshops:
1) Complete bound issues of National Geographic and Playboy magazines from the date of their inception — Rs 50 for a 12-volume set
2) The first prints of James Joyce’s unabridged and uncensored Ulysses — Rs 50 each
3) An early 19th century biography of Chhatrapati Shivaji by an unknown Marathi author — Rs 200
4) An original copy of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — a mere Rs 5.
Incredibly cheap, one would say, but these books find their way into the international markets, including major auction houses in London, the city of book-lovers, where sometimes a single title could fetch the occasional buyer-seller a fortune. And the books that find their way outside are not just rare books published in India (in languages as varied as Pali, Sanskrit, Mythili and Chentamil), but books published from practically every nook and cranny of the world.
Curiously, the shops buy these books at dirt-cheap prices or, as in several cases, the books fall into their laps free of cost. Says Meher Mistry, 71, an avid book collector who has spent a considerable chunk of his earnings to build up a library of rare books, magazines and other memorabilia: “[Most of these books] really belonged to several old mansions in south and central Mumbai, which have been demolished over the years. Books, unlike other art and artefacts, are literally thrown out as garbage. And a major collection of my books are this garbage.” The worth of Mistry’s collection is pegged at more than Rs 1 crore, though he is unwilling to sell even a single title.
Apart from the bookshops, the biggest delight of second-hand book buffs is the roads in and around Flora Fountain. In a stretch of about two kilometres — on which educated, Shakespeare-quoting street vendors have hawked books for the past 20-30 years — around 200,000 books are up for grabs. Every day. About 80 per cent of them are used books. All types are available here: fiction, non-fiction, technical, non-technical, you name it, you grab it.
The Mumbai book market has generated so much interest that the Internet is full of praise. One enchanted traveller once wrote on a site: “Any self-respecting Bombaywallah would have bought at least one book from [the vendors around Flora Fountain] at least once. I should mention, however, that the favourite haunt of book maniacs would be the thousands(!) of street vendors or stalls well littered all around Mumbai.”
“It is at these book stores that one can get the best bargains or choices and the joy of finding a rare book that one has been searching, for a throwaway price — not to mention the atmosphere in which one can chat with other hunters while browsing through the books,” says Suma Josson, author and filmmaker.
Now, it is not just individual collectors who are throwing their hat into the ring. Big corporate houses and hotels are also stacking up old and rare books — of course, in good condition, and preferably gold-rimmed — in their showcases. The money at stake here is definitely higher.
Predictably, several of these collectors’ items are found in bad condition — due, in the main, to poor handling (even in bookstores) and weather conditions — so, they require professional retouching, which itself is a business on the rise, but that is another story, and will save for another day.
— Sunil K Poolani

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