CHENNAI: Just like a fantasy novel, where a long and dark path finally leads you to a world of magic, a narrow staircase leads to Henry Winston’s treasure trove of books. There’s nothing ordinary about 45-year-old Winston’s book shop; it holds in its shelves some of the oldest and rarest books, some as far back as the 1800s and some as rare as the first edition of Lawrence of Arabia.
Winston has been collecting books for more than half his life but stumbled upon gold when book collector Govindaraju was looking to sell books he had been collecting for over 50 years. “About three years ago, I heard Govindaraju was looking to sell his bookshop, Rare Books in Adyar. He was old and unable to manage it anymore. So I jumped at the opportunity,” smiles Winston.
That’s when finding a place to store them became an onerous task. Finally Winston’s wife found a small room in Anna Nagar that has now become home to over 15,000 books. It has taken him over three years to just organise one part of the collection.
Many of these books at the shop would cost thousands in the international market but Winston has managed to buy them for as little as `10. “I found some of these books at small stalls and since the booksellers did not know the value of their collections, I got them for a pittance. When I looked for the market price, I found that it can run into thousands,” explains Winston.
But where are sellers getting such rare books from? “These books come in bulks and in containers from England and other countries. The people sending them don’t realise their value and the book sellers who get them here don’t know that either. So the latter usually get these books for free and then sell them for `50- 60 on the streets,” he explains.
The book shop has a myriad range of books including encyclopedias, dictionaries, travelogues, maps, magazines, oldest National Geographic issues, Illustrated Weekly issues, and also books on grammar, cookery, music, movies and drama plus comic books, wildlife books, as well.
However, Winston does not limit himself to books; he also collects newspapers, booklets and pamphlets and has proudly displayed a booklet invitation for the funeral of King George. “When King George died, his daughter Elizabeth was holidaying with her husband in Africa and our very own Jim Corbett was guiding their tour. So when she had to leave immediately, that’s when Corbett wrote that she had taken flight as a princess but had landed as a queen,” he shares.
Winston is still hunting for more books and opens his bookshop only when a customer makes a special request, “I have assistant directors from Mumbai and visitors from other cities, including buyers from the US with very specific requests,” he says.
Some of the pages are so brittle that it may crumble by a harsh touch, while others have withstood time even after 100 years. These yellowed pages don’t just take you to places through words but also give you interesting and informative glimpses of history.