S. Govindaraju, Chennai

Rare & Secondhand Booksellers
16 May 2018

Sliding folding corrugated doors conceal a plethora of secondhand and rare books

Photograph by Robert D Stephens

Stepping off of the footpath and into a middle class residential complex, I meander my way through the stilt floor, a maze of static parking spaces with the periodic car here and there. Sandwiched into one such garage space, and enclosed with folding aluminium chequered plates, is the rare book store of Mr. S.A.Govindaraju.

The local on-duty security guard notes my curious observations of the locked premises and scurries off to find Mr. Govindaraju. Five minutes later, an elderly man joyfully makes his way in my direction, unlocks the doors of his store, and into the world of words we ascend….

Me: Thank you so much sir for opening your store for me sir.

S.G.: Oh, it is my pleasure.

Me: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself….what / who inspired you to collect books, when did you start, etc?

S.G.: My Father was my inspiration. I used to always see him reading books and that in turn inspired me. I bought my first book when I was 25. I am 82 now. It was a Penguin book which had just begun being imported into India, and it cost 1/4 of a rupee.

While Mr. Govindaraju talks more about Penguin books, how the logo intrigued him and the numbering of books inspired him to delve into collecting, my eyes wander through the PACKED store. The space is small, but exudes a fragrance of love for books and features a density of books per square inch only seen in India.

Mr S. A.Govidaraju, BA Economics, MA Social Work

Photograph by Robert D. Stephens

Wife Matters

Me: Sir, now the most important question, for which I seek your advice in my own personal life as well: How does your wife react to these books and how do you manage that?

S.G.: (Laughs….then answers) She tolerates the books – so long as they are not in the house! In urban India, especially living in a flat, lack of space is a big constraint. Which is why my garage has become my store.

Me: Ah yes, I can understand that.

S.G.: (Continues talking on his own accord) You know, I was not born a rich man, neither am I rich now. But what I saved, I spent on books. My intention was never to sell, but to preserve.

Me: Where did you buy your books from?

S.G.: Oh, hundreds of places throughout Madras. Almost all exclusively raddiwallas – trash paper collectors. Whatever I could find, I would buy. Today, however, all one finds is college books – everyplace is just flooded with college books.

Me: How many books have you sold in your life?

S.G.: I began selling in 1997, and in that year I sold 14 tons of books to a singular buyer in Madras. Since then, I have sold another 6 tons of books.

(Note to self for scale: 20 tons of books is equivalent to the weight of 30 cows).

I began selling in 1997, and in that year I sold 14 tons of books to a singular buyer in Madras. Since then, I have sold another 6 tons of books.”

(Note to self for scale: 20 tons of books is equivalent to the weight of 30 cows).

On Public Libraries and Visiting Cards

Me: Wow. What about donating some of your books to public libraries?

S.G.: Oh! Libraries are scandalous! They are NOT maintained! Like dogs in the manger! Books are rotting, damaged, and very few staff seem to care!

S.G.: (continues)….I would rather sell all my books back to the raddiwala (trash-paper collectors) who would then sell the books to a person like me, rather than give them to a public library.

Me: Lastly, before I begin browsing, do you have any especially rare books which you have come across, that you would like to share about?

S.G.: Oh, yes. I once came across a full set of the Imperial Gazetteer – 30 volumes – 1909. It was a splendid set. But the fact is, all the best books on India are no longer in India. They are in Australia, UK, USA etc. Everywhere but here.

I thank Mr. Govindraju for his time and before leaving I ask if he has a visiting card, to which he replies:

A card. Oh, I don’t have a card. I would rather buy a book.”

And with that wonderful gesture we clasp hands in bromance, following which I browse through his paradise of literary art…..eventually stumbling upon and buying a modern reprint of the 1886 colonial classic “Hobson Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive.”

1 Comment

  1. Pipi

    Congratulations and thank you for sharing your passion for books, knowledge, life and of course India with us. Of course you have also chosen the right partner on this journey! Keep on keeping on!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Urbs Indis is an urban aerial photography studio and archival library founded by Mumbai based architect and artist Robert D Stephens (RMA Architects). Since 2007 he has been documenting urban India from 10,000 feet above sea level, in black and white as well as colour photography.

© Robert D Stephens
Website design by Tina Nandi Stephens