In good books – a peek into the Rare Books in Chennai

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Eyes that are not keen might miss this space on RA Puram Second Main Road. In the ground floor of a building near the Billroth Hospital is a space that has transformed into a haven for book lovers. From several old copies of magazines like Life and Time to the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India, you will find a treasure trove of rare finds in Rare Books, a space that is actually a garage converted into a bookstore by its enterprising owner S A Govindaraju, who got into the habit of collecting books from an early age.

“My father was a voracious reader and he passed on the habit to me. I collected many Pelican pocket books, which came for four annas. I went on to collect over 1,000 such books,” says Govindaraju, who worked for the National Productivity Council and was also a part of the faculty of the University of Madras. Since 1994, Govindaraju has been running this space in RA Puram.

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Every possible topic will have a book here, from literature, music and cartoons to politics, geography and history. Lack of space pushed him to sell the books. “I had no space and it made sense that the book went to the one who needed it. I do not keep college books or books on computer studies, as they never interested me. I was not into comics either but started collecting them after I saw many people wanted it. I have seen some of the best books in the world. I would like to continue to be with them but I can’t live forever like that. I want my books to go to the right person in my time. Else, many books get pulped after the owners die.”

Rare Books isn’t fully business for Govindaraju. “These are rare books because you can’t find them elsewhere easily. Some of these are the first prints of those books, and some carry the signature of the author. I travelled during the course of my life for my career but my books remained here. About 90 per cent of what you see here are from my personal collection. These were preserved. Frankly, many libraries in India also do not value and preserve books properly. I have often heard this that during the World War II, the British preserved two things – books and gold. It is said that they sent a lot of their important books to Canada,” says Govindaraju as he takes out some books worth mentioning.

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There are heaps of books and magazines all over the store. All these have densely yellowed with time. “Our tropical climate is a major hindrance for preservation. With rats and lizards in plenty, it feels as though nature itself is against it. But in the western countries, the weather is more conducive for such work,” he says as he takes out a bundle of The Illustrated Weekly of India. One particular edition from 1963 has Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s classic Chemmeen translated into English, two years before the Malayalam feature film was released. The translation also has sketches by Mario Miranda. Some old issues of the magazine Life bring alive the days of the cold war.

But Govindaraju takes a special interest in vintage advertisements. “Some of these ads date back to more than a 100 years. Excepting a few, most corporate houses do not document their heritage. Some of them have bought their old ads from me for preservation in their coffee table books. Even the Tatas and the Godrej group reached out to me for their ads,” he says. But he sells only that particular section and not the entire magazine. “You might need one story from a magazine and won’t care for the rest of it. But someone else might need what you will later discard. Many researchers come here with very specific requests.” During the Chennai floods, he had to hurriedly take all these books upstairs to his home. “Water levels rose up to six inches and the books could have got badly destroyed. I was able to save most of them.”

One magazine he wants more of is the London Illustrated News. “You keep books for two reasons. One is that you want to possess them. There is no end to that desire. The second is for commercial value that it may fetch at a later date. I am not a book seller. I am a book lover.”

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