The Life And Times Of A Second-Hand Bookseller
July 16, 2019
As heavy downpour drenches Matunga, pedestrians are busy getting to work, while people unfamiliar with the area are looking for directions. A group of students approach a shop outside the Jain Temple, wanting directions to a nearby college, and a man, whose sunny demeanor is a contrast to the gloomy weather, readily shows them the way. Hitler Nadar, who runs a second-hand bookshop, waves them off with an easy smile, a stark contrast between his personality and his unusual name. A stack of books peek from behind him and, upon closer look, a gleeful customer could chance upon the rarest second-hand books available in Mumbai.
Hitler is one of the few booksellers in the city selling second-hand books, and what’s fascinating is just how much he loves them. In spite of heavy rains, the books remain in pristine condition, and the rarer ones are wrapped in newspapers, providing extra protection. As he awaits a customer who has ordered an especially rare book, he remarks that the frequency of customers is diminishing daily. As he cradles his books, as you would a newborn baby, his worship of the written word clearly shines through.
My first experience with second-hand books involved looking through hordes of books near Flora Fountain. Sellers lined the pavement and with books available at a significantly cheaper rate, suffice it to say, I was in paradise. I could buy 2-3 of these pre-loved books, with their faded pages and scribbled messages, for the price of one. While the rates haven’t changed, what has changed is the frequency of people who visit these bookstalls. In the age of heavily discounted, newly minted paperbacks and hardcovers on Amazon, these shops are slowly becoming a memory, and people are forgetting these hidden gems across the city.
Hitler : Unusual Name, Unusual Man
Hitler, whose unusual name is an endless source of discussion, gets up at 5:30 every morning and, from 9 a.m. onwards, makes his round through the raddiwalas to pick out literary gems from the books he comes across. A collector of rare books, he mentions how sometimes libraries are often looking to just give away books, and that he has benefited from this in the past. Selling second-hand books for 23 years, Hitler has formed so many contacts across the city that people especially seek him out to take their books, knowing his love for them. An avid fan of thrillers and mysteries, he also reads the newspaper everyday, particularly the “bookish” section, to stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the literary world. He credits his inspiration to sell rare books to one Abhay Mehta who helped him see the worth of rare books, and who encouraged him to sell them at an appropriate price range.
Piracy has affected his business, and sometimes he even gets mad at his situation. Hitler is a father of two, and his son’s engineering fees are humongous, but he says, “Life goes on….when it pushes you, don’t think. Go with the flow.” He doesn’t stay low for long though, and shipments of books immediately perk him up. His collection includes vintage fashion magazines, old posters and maps, and first edition books from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. Over a cup of coffee, he fondly remembers how he found an entire stack of Archie comics at a Parsi family’s house.
(Hitler Nadar (left); His shop in Matunga (right))
Afzal : A Reader Turned Bookseller
While Hitler operates in Matunga, Vivek Pandey and Mohammad Afzal Ansari sell second-hand books out of warehouses. Afzal, who started this business some 10 years ago, used to read so much that books began accumulating at an alarming rate, and he soon started selling them instead of letting them pile up. As his reading time reduced, he started collecting books based on a hunch, or on how much they were in demand in the market.
He collects books from local raddiwalas and, over the years, has formed a network of reliable sources that help him obtain a number of rare books. “Hard work led me here, but most of it belongs to luck”, he says with unflinching honesty.
Afzal says that his customers don’t always ask for popular fiction, but often look for books that are not always “bestsellers”. He often goes out of his way to procure books that are out of print, as there is an increased demand for those. Online bigwigs like Amazon and the increase in piracy have certainly put a dampener on the business, but Afzal remains steadily positive.
(Afzal Ansari (left); His collection of books (right))
Vivek : “Books Are My Children”
Vivek Pandey, on the other hand, focuses mostly on bookfairs around India. He took over the business from his father and fondly remembers when people used to seek out their shop in Santacruz for second-hand books. They used to lend books for a while but now focus solely on selling. “We get shipments from the biggest book markets, i.e, U.K. and U.S.”. He loves it when he gets his hand on a long-awaited first edition, because he now knows how valuable it is. Books from the philosophy and arts genres are a huge hit, he says, as are collectible comics. He claims that people go crazy for vintage comics from the 70s, and India’s Indrajal comics form a surprisingly big chunk of it.
Vivek has had years of practice in noticing the trend in the market and says that books like The Good Earth, The Alchemist (his favourite book), How To Win Friends And Influence People, Think And Grow Rich, and The Power Of Your Subconscious Mind sell like hotcakes. Like a well-versed literature expert, he throws out names like Ayn Rand, Albert Camus and Kafka, which shows just how far his love of reading goes. When asked if he would be okay with keeping popular fiction by Chetan Bhagat and Durjoy Dutta in the same lane as the classics, he laughs and says, “However much we love our classics, the door for Indian writers only opened through these authors. All these books are my children, and I would never differentiate between them”.
(His collection of books)
The recent monsoon has not been kind to them, as Afzal’s collection of over 2,500 books suffered a bit, and even Hitler’s bookshop did not get away unscathed. What is surprising is how upbeat and resilient they are, even in the face of declining sales and extremely tough weather conditions. Despite this, they are hopeful that books will prevail, as they always have.
Books, old or new, fill us with a sense of passion, and these men have made it their livelihood. They run second-hand bookshops because they love books, and according to Vivek, “see myself spending hours surrounded by books”.
I always knew books could get us through even the toughest of times in our lives but these men, with their unrelenting passion for books, have worshipped them, have cared for them like their children, and will likely continue to do so for years.
From July 19- July 22, Hitler, Afzal and Vivek are going to be setting up shop and showing off their collections at Twice Told. Come meet them, talk to them, and get to know their stories. And don’t forget to bring bags for the loads of books you plan on buying! Get the details here.
Prasanna is a human (probably) who makes stuff up for a living. When she's not sleeping or eating, you'll find her in the quietest corner of the library, devouring yet another hardbound book. She vastly prefers the imaginary world to the real one, but grudgingly emerges from her writing cave on occasion. If you do see her, it's best not to approach her before she's had her coffee.
She writes at The Curious Reader. You can read her articles here.