CHENNAI: The air at the bustling streets of Moore Market is filled with the scent of aged paper and the chatter of students. The narrow alleys are lined with makeshift stalls, each piled high with a treasure trove of second-hand books. As I weave through the crowd, my eyes scan the worn spines for hidden gems. The vendors beckon me toward their maze of literary wonders, including classics, best-selling novels, and academic textbooks.
They are storytellers themselves, hiding their narratives behind the stacks of books. What begins as a discussion about the written word takes an unexpected turn, transcending the pages of books into their reality. With sincerity, they share tales of loss and resilience. They recount the challenges faced by the booksellers during the recent floods in Chennai, where their beloved collections were threatened by rising waters.
Stop for second-hand books
Each book holds not just stories but memories — fragments of a past that perseveres even in the face of adversity, mentions Abdul Nakash who has been selling books here for the past 12 years. “We lost almost one tonne of books because of the recent floods. The streets were filled with knee-deep water and since we keep the books here inside the stalls and not shift them anywhere else, the damage was inevitable,” he says. K Venkatesh, owner of Sri Harri Books, who has been selling second-hand books for almost 15 years shares a similar sentiment. “Every vendor in the street lost almost Rs 30,000 to Rs 45,000 because of the floods. We gather these books mostly from other vendors or people and there is no return policy which makes it all the more tough,” he says.
Late historian S Muthiah notes in Madras discovered: a historical guide to looking around, supplemented with tales of “Once upon a City” that “Moore Market was conceived by Lt Col Sir George Moore, president of the then municipality. The foundation stone for the quadrangular, corner-turreted building was, appropriately, laid by him in August 1898. A large number of shops in the Market also specialised in second-hand books — frequented as much by students in search of bargains as by those in search of rare books.”
As historic as the city itself, the market has been serving as a haven for second-hand books and antiques for decades. But with challenges like floods, competitions
from branded book stalls, the proliferation of online books and pirated PDFs, and book fairs happening from time to time, the area is seeing fewer people visiting to buy and check out books. Abdul mentions that the peak time for selling books is during March and June. “In March, just before the exams, there will be a rush in the sale and in June, before an academic year begins, is the season for us sellers,” he says, adding that the recent loss in books has caused tension because the exam season is approaching.
Nagarajan, owner of Harrison Book Centre who has been running the shop for the last 20 years shares, “We sell academic books from trusted and most popular publishers like Pearson, Wiley, Laxmi Publications, and New Age International Publishers. Most of the customers are medical students, UPSC aspirants, school, college kids, and their parents.” The sellers affirm that most of the students get what they want from the shops as they have been serving as one of the cheapest places to get books.
“Earlier, the market used to be the only place where this much variety of second-hand books existed. Now, areas like Perambur and Tambaram also have vendors selling books. The online coaching classes offering their comprehensive study guides as part of their programmes have also prevented a lot of students from reading the original textbooks,” rues Abdul.
Addressing the adversities
Battling the issues of the rising online sellers, a few vendors also tried joining the business but eventually wound it up because they realised online businesses are harder to sustain unless provided with a lot of help. Venkatesh says, “For the online business, the profit is less. Most of the companies including Amazon and Flipkart take almost 17% of the profit. People will only buy if we give a 20% discount. Even if we sell a book costing Rs 400, we get only Rs 10 as profit. If the books are returned by the customers, our investment is held and packaging charges are lost.”
The lack of digital literacy and assurance of a trusted third party stopped Nagarajan from venturing into the online sector. The Allikula Vanigavallaga Vyaapaarikal Nalasangam, the workers’ union, has been helping better the condition of the sellers at Moore Market for the past four years. However, Suresh, treasurer of the union shares that the adversities like floods should be faced and there isn’t much they can do from the worker’s side as it amounts to infrastructural changes. He says, “We have approximately 400 shops here. Inside the building, it is a proper structure and the vendors have to pay the rent. Outside, on the streets, it is a temporary structure, thus the risks are more for them.”
Imagining the condition of the Moore Market, after another twenty years is a scary exercise for most of the vendors. Abdul shares, “During the pandemic time itself, most students switched to online classes and e-books. The sellers here have been doing this as their family business or at least for more than five years. Most of us earn Rs 2,000 once in a while. Even though we are worried about the sustenance of the business, we cannot think about anything else as we have already invested a lot in the books. So we will keep hoping that things will be better.”
The exchanges with the booksellers become a reminder that within the pages stacked on the streets, the stories of both books and those who safeguard them unfold in intricate layers.