In this series of articles, T5E goes beyond the gates of insti to explore Chennai and present our readers with interesting and useful information about our beautiful city. First up, Akshyah tells us about some of the many places in and around the city which sell a wide variety of second-hand books at cheap prices.
Chennaiites are bibliophiles. Be it books on Plato and Aristotle, insti favourites like H2G2, Mills and Boons, comics or cooking recipes, there are people who want to read them, or at least own them. Unfortunately, this love for books clashes with their other, greater, passions – Chennaiites would rather spend their hard-earned cash on a sumptuous meal in Saravana Bhavan or on an old Rajinikanth movie than on expensive books.
But there is a solution to these conflicting interests. Yellow pages with termite-bitten brown covers and a scribble on the first page that reads, “To dear Saroja, from loving mama – 24/04/1974”. That smell of cardboard boxes with pencil notes on the sides of the pages that do not crackle. Books with a history. Second-hand books.
Chennai is stocked with stores that sell second-hand books falling under a wide range of genres and languages. Listed below are some of them.
To localites, the name is synonymous with second-hand books, and with good reason. From engineering design to computer graphics, quantum physics to aerospace engineering, social psychology to geography, the streets of Moore Market ring with buzzwords from academia as students and shopkeepers bargain over the cheap textbooks that the area is famous for. As one nears the centre of the labyrinth of book stalls, the books get more interesting. There are novels, poetry collections, journals and good non-fiction books. The best part is that the sellers are quite knowledgeable about the books they own – tell them either the title or the author’s name, and they will promptly pull it out from the seemingly never-ending stacks of books.
Moreover, situated in the heart of the city right next to the Central station, this is a market in the traditional sense of the word. There is always a bustling crowd, and the streets are alive with noise from disappointed buyers, irritated sellers, desperate students and even more desperate shopkeepers. And of course, there’s the bargaining. Add clueless groups of tourists, chai shops, roadside carts selling bracelets and rings, sophisticated shops (read: shops with a roof) selling antiques and Ganesha statues, and this is definitely a place to visit.
Whether you know it as Pycrofts Road or Crofts Road or Bharathi Salai, you can’t change the fact that this place in Chennai has been selling books for as long as anyone can remember. As a natural consequence, the books here are often extremely old and outdated. And in relatively bad condition. But the shops here have some of the rarest books and earliest editions and, more importantly, they are extremely cheap, starting from as low as 20 Rupees. Most shops are also willing to buy used books, albeit at a low price. If you have a set of books from your first semester collecting dust, and are in dire need of money, this is the place to go.
There is a man on the road who has a huge pile of books arranged in no particular order and with nothing to protect them except a paltry blue plastic sheet. This pile has survived and thrived through sixty years of Madras weather and traffic and multiple changes of government and police forces. Of course, the books and the size of the pile have changed over the years, but the man hasn’t. He and his heir (daughter-in-law), who has taken over due to his ailing health, still know every single book in the haphazardly arranged piles, and can immediately pick them out for you. They are also very broad minded, in that they do not discriminate between genres. They have seen the rise of many competitors in the area like The Alwar bookshop, Gita Press and several other shops without roofs, but they all fall short of the thatha’s roadside shop. He is such a popular figure in Chennai for his extensive knowledge of books owned by him and others (if he doesn’t have a book, he will direct you to a place which does), that he has been featured in many newspapers across the city, making him a must visit for all booklovers.
Yes. If you look beyond those colourful shawls, twinkling shoes, heavy jhumkas and the fake CDs and watches, you can actually find many small book stalls here. These stalls specialize in new releases by popular authors – and in cheap print! You get to read the entire Shiva trilogy for 150 rupees when Flipkart sells it for 500. And not to forget, Mills and Boons and Harlequin Romance, both available in plentiful supply, if your tastes swing that way.
Besides these major haunts, there are several other amazing places for the rarest of books in obscure areas, like the lending-cum-selling book store opposite Italica in R.A. Puram; Murthi Bookshop and Berkhirebooks near Anna Nagar Roundtana; and the bookshops near Higginbothams, Mount Road, which are stocked with books on pure science and for competitive exams.
However, most of these shops’ idea of fiction is restricted to romance – Danielle Steele and Stephenie Meyer (Heaven forbid), Tinkle and Sidney Sheldon. Those of you who want to read regular fiction and Indian writing in English, worry not – there are many new (and pretty good) lending libraries that have cropped up in almost every area of the city. You can even look for books online, on sites like iloveread.in, readersnest.com and bookandborrow.com. The online libraries are better because they offer home delivery, saving you the trouble of travelling, while charging the same rates as the others.
Finally, this article is incomplete without a mention of book sales. They happen all the time, in random places, on random days and with hardly any notice – but they offer some of the best deals. Besides the famous ones that happen in January near Pachaiyappa College, there are regular exhibitions conducted by “iloveread” on particular genres at least once in six months. Their most recent one was on magic realism!